MicroVox Puts the 80’s Back into Your Computer’s Voice

[Monta Elkins] got it in his mind that he wanted to try out an old-style speech synthesizer with the SC-01 (or SC-01A) chip, one that uses phonemes to produce speech. After searching online he found a MicroVox text-to-speech synthesizer from the 1980s based around the chip, and after putting together a makeshift serial cable, he connected it up to an Arduino Uno and tried it out. It has that 8-bit artificial voice that many of us remember fondly and is fairly understandable.

The SC-01, and then the SC-01A, were made by Votrax International, Inc. In addition to the MicroVox, the SC-01 and SC-01A were used in the Heath Hero robot, the VS-100 synthesizer add-on for TRS-80s, various arcade games such as Qbert and Krull, and in a variety of other products. Its input determines which phonemes to play and where it shines is in producing good transitions between them to come up with decent speech, much better than you’d get if you just play the phonemes one after the other.

microvox-manualThe MicroVox has a 25-pin RS-232 serial port as well as a parallel port and a speaker jack. In addition to the SC-01A, it has a 6502 under the hood. [Monta] was lucky to also receive the manual, and what a manual it is! In addition to a list of the supported phonemes and words, it also contains the schematics, parts list and details for the serial port which alone would make for fun reading. We really liked the taped-in note seen in this screenshot. It has a hand-written noted that says “Factory Corrected 10/18/82”.

Following along with [Monta] in the video below, he finds the serial port’s input buffer chip datasheet online and verifies the voltage levels. Next he opens up the case and uses dips switches to set baud rate, data bits, parity, stop bits and so on. After hooking up the speakers, putting together a makeshift cable for RX, TX and ground, and writing a little Arduino code, he sends it text and out comes the speech.

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Arduino Clock Is HAL 1000

In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000 — the neurotic computer — had a birthday in 1992 (for some reason, in the book it is 1997). In the late 1960s, that date sounded impossibly far away, but now it seems like a distant memory. The only thing is, we are only now starting to get computers with voice I/O that are practical and even they are a far cry from HAL.

[GeraldF6] built an Arduino-based clock. That’s nothing new but thanks to a MOVI board (ok, shield), this clock has voice input and output as you can see in the video below. Unlike most modern speech-enabled devices, the MOVI board (and, thus, the clock) does not use an external server in the cloud or any remote processing at all. On the other hand, the speech quality isn’t what you might expect from any of the modern smartphone assistants that talk. We estimate it might be about 1/9 the power of the HAL 9000.

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Retrotechtacular: The Incredible Machine

They just don’t write promotional film scripts like they used to: “These men are design engineers. They are about to engage a new breed of computer, called Graphic 1, in a dialogue that will test the ingenuity of both men and machine.”

This video (embedded below) from Bell Labs in 1968 demonstrates the state of the art in “computer graphics” as the narrator calls it, with obvious quotation marks in his inflection. The movie ranges from circuit layout, to animations, to voice synthesis, hitting the high points of the technology at the time. The soundtrack, produced on their computers, naturally, is pure Jetsons.

Highlights are the singing “Daisy Bell” at 9:05, which inspired Stanley Kubrick to play a glitchy version of the track as Dave is pulling Hal 9000’s brains out, symbolically regressing backwards through a history of computer voice synthesis which at that point in time was the present. (Whoah!)
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Talking Neural Nets

Speech synthesis is nothing new, but it has gotten better lately. It is about to get even better thanks to DeepMind’s WaveNet project. The Alphabet (or is it Google?) project uses neural networks to analyze audio data and it learns to speak by example. Unlike other text-to-speech systems, WaveNet creates sound one sample at a time and affords surprisingly human-sounding results.

Before you rush to comment “Not a hack!” you should know we are seeing projects pop up on GitHub that use the technology. For example, there is a concrete implementation by [ibab]. [Tomlepaine] has an optimized version. In addition to learning English, they successfully trained it for Mandarin and even to generate music. If you don’t want to build a system out yourself, the original paper has audio files (about midway down) comparing traditional parametric and concatenative voices with the WaveNet voices.

Another interesting project is the reverse path — teaching WaveNet to convert speech to text. Before you get too excited, though, you might want to note this quote from the read me file:

“We’ve trained this model on a single Titan X GPU during 30 hours until 20 epochs and the model stopped at 13.4 ctc loss. If you don’t have a Titan X GPU, reduce batch_size in the train.py file from 16 to 4.”

Last time we checked, you could get a Titan X for a little less than $2,000.

There is a multi-part lecture series on reinforced learning (the foundation for DeepMind). If you wanted to tackle a project yourself, that might be a good starting point (the first part appears below).

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Making a Homemade Stephen Hawking

It isn’t easy communicating when you have any form of speech impairment. In such cases, a Speech-generating device (SGD) becomes essential to help you talk to the world. When coupled with other ailments that limit body movement, the problem becomes worse. How do you type on a keyboard when you can’t move your hands, and how do you talk when your voice box doesn’t work. Well known Scientist Stephen Hawking has been battling this since 1985. Back then, it took a lot of hardware to build a text entry interface and a text to speech device allowing him to communicate.

But [Marquis de Geek] did a quick hack using just a few parts to make a Voice Box that sounds like Stephen Hawking. Using an arcade push button to act as a single button keyboard, an Arduino, a 74HC595 shift register, a 2-line LCD, and the SP0256 hooked to an audio amplifier / speaker, he built the stand-alone speech synthesizer which sounds just like the voice box that  Stephen Hawking uses. Although Dr. Hawking’s speech hardware is quite complex, [Marquis de Geek]’s hack shows that it’s possible to have similar results using off the shelf parts for a low cost solution.

There aren’t a lot of those SP0256-AL2 chips around. We found just a couple of retailers with small stock levels, so if you want to make one of these voice boxes, better grab those chips while they last. The character entry is not quick, requiring several button presses to get to the character you want to select. But it makes things easier for someone who cannot move their hands or use all fingers. A lot of kids grew up using Speak and Spell, but the hardware inside that box wasn’t the easiest to hack into. For a demo of [Marquis de Geek]’s homemade Hawking voice box, check the video below.

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An Adventure into Android Makes the VIC-20 Speak

History and [Bil Herd] teaches us that Commodore begged, borrowed, or stole the engineers responsible for the Speak & Spell to add voice synthesis to a few of the computers that came after the C64. This didn’t quite work out in practice, but speech synthesis was something that was part of the Commodore scene for a long time. The Votrax Type ‘n Talk was a stand-alone speech synthesizer that plugged into the expansion port of the VIC-20. It was expensive, rare, but a few games supported it. [Jan] realized the state of speech synthesis has improved tremendously over the last 30 years, and decided to give his VIC a voice with the help of a cheap Android phone.

A few VIC-20 games, including [Scott Adams] adventure games, worked with the Votrax speech synthesizer by sending phonemes as text over the expansion port. From there, the Votrax would take care of assembling everything into something intelligible, requiring no overhead on the VIC-20. [Jan] realized since the VIC is just spitting out characters for each phoneme, he could redirect those words to a better, more modern voice synthesizer.

A small Bluetooth module was wired up to the user port on the VIC, and this module was paired with a cheap Android smartphone. The smartphone receives the serial stream from an adventure game, and speaks the descriptions of all the scenes in these classic adventure games.

It’s a unique experience judging from the video, but the same hardware and software can also be added to any program that will run on the VIC-20, C64, and C128. Video below.

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Retrotechtacular: The Voder from Bell Labs


This is the under-the-hood view of the keyboard for the Voder (Voice Operating Demonstrator), the first electronic device capable of generating continuous human speech. It accomplishes this feat through a series of keys that generate the syllables, plosives, and affricatives normally produced by the human larynx and shaped by the throat and tongue. This week’s film is a picture montage paired with the audio from the demonstration of the Voder at the 1939 World’s Fair.

The Voder was created by one [Homer Dudley] at Bell Laboratories. He did so in conjunction with the Vocoder, which analyzes human-generated speech for encrypted transfer and re-synthesizes it on the other end. [Dudley] spent over 40 years researching speech at Bell Laboratories. His development of both the Voder and the Vocoder were instrumental in the SIGSALY project which aimed to deliver encrypted voice communication to the theatres of WWII.

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