Make Your ESP32 Talk Like It’s The 80s Again

80s-era electronic speech certainly has a certain retro appeal to it, but it can sometimes be a useful data output method since it can be implemented on very little hardware. [luc] demonstrates this with a talking thermometer project that requires no display and no special hardware to communicate temperatures to a user.

Back in the day, there were chips like the Votrax SC-01A that could play phonemes (distinct sounds that make up a language) on demand. These would be mixed and matched to create identifiable words, in that distinctly synthesized Speak & Spell manner that is so charming-slash-uncanny.

Software-only speech synthesis isn’t new, but it’s better now than it was in Atari’s day.

Nowadays, even hobbyist microcontrollers have more than enough processing power and memory to do a similar job entirely in software, which is exactly what [luc]’s talking thermometer project does. All this is done with the Talkie library, originally written for the Arduino and updated for the ESP32 and other microcontrollers. With it, one only needs headphones or a simple audio amplifier and speaker to output canned voice data from a project.

[luc] uses it to demonstrate how to communicate to a user in a hands-free manner without needing a display, and we also saw this output method in an electric unicycle which had a talking speedometer (judged to better allow the user to keep their eyes on the road, as well as minimizing the parts count.)

Would you like to listen to an authentic, somewhat-understandable 80s-era text-to-speech synthesizer? You’re in luck, because we can show you an authentic vintage MicroVox unit in action. Give it a listen, and compare it to a demo of the Talkie library in the video below.

19 thoughts on “Make Your ESP32 Talk Like It’s The 80s Again

  1. Interesting. I put together a ESP32 with an audio playback device and pre-programmed it with audio segments for numerical readout. Not a difficult task as it’s just playback and driving the files dynamically. I didn’t know about the talkie library. Might play with that next. Like the retro feel.

  2. “Back in the day, there were chips like the Votrax SC-01A that could play phonemes (distinct sounds that make up a language) on demand. These would be mixed and matched to create identifiable words, in that distinctly synthesized Speak & Spell manner that is so charming-slash-uncanny.”

    Just…..Wow. No, no, no.

    Speak and Spell sounds were not synthesized it played back very, very lossily compressed audio. All the sounds were audio recordings made by Mitch Carr, a radio announcer that TI hired to record the samples. The distinct electronic sound of the speak and spell was compression artifacts.

    Using a Votrax to string Phonemes together was a completely different sound. And not that “distinct synthesized speak & spell manner”.

    Why is it so hard for HAD to find people who know the most basic things about what they are writing about. Do you really think it’s better to make things up in your head about topics you know nothing about rather than spend 30 seconds with Google?

    1. Spend a few seconds more, and you’ll find that the Speak and Spell used the TI TMC0280 (also known as the TMS5100) to synthesize the spoken words. The TMC0280 used phonemes stored in ROM to synthesize the words. The English words were recorded in Dallas then processed into phonemes. Other languages were recorded in Nice, France then sent to Dallas to be converted to the needed phoneme data and sent back for corrections and further work.

      The Speak and Spell did not merely use prerecorded sounds. It used a synthesizer that worked from phonemes generated from recordings.

      Modern synthesizers do something similar. They start with a large body of recordings from while individual sounds and sound sequences are clipped. These are then used to make the phonemes that are used in the synthesizer. They generally use more than simple phonemes – they will include phoneme pairs in order to make the transistions more natural.

      Speak and Spell: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speak_%26_Spell_(toy)
      TI speech synthesis chips: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Instruments_LPC_Speech_Chips
      Linear predictive coding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_predictive_coding

      1. Soc Rat is 100% correct. The Speak and Spell truly did “merely use prerecorded sounds”. It did NOT use phonemes in any way. The speech part of the ROM only contained entire words. For the S&S to gain any vocabulary, you had to buy additional cartridges which contained more complete words. We all agree that phonemes allow for arbitrary words to be generated. Many have tried to hack the S&S to say new words, but nothing short of generating new and complete LPC-encoded words/phrases has ever been successful.

        Hack-a-day even covered another project on this topic:
        https://hackaday.com/2012/12/03/teaching-the-speak-spell-four-and-more-letter-words/

        If someone does want to use a phoneme-based speech synthesizer on the ESP32, definitely look at the ESP8266SAM Arduino library:
        https://github.com/earlephilhower/ESP8266SAM

      2. Soc Rat is 100% correct. The Speak and Spell truly did “merely use prerecorded sounds”. It did NOT use phonemes in any way. The speech part of the ROM only contained entire words. For the S&S to say anything different, you had to buy additional cartridges which contained more complete words. We all agree that phonemes allow for arbitrary words to be generated. Many have tried to hack the S&S to say new words, but nothing short of generating new and complete LPC-encoded words/phrases has ever been successful.

        Hack-a-day even covered another project on this topic over ten years ago where the author endeavored to add bad words to the vocabulary. They had to record, encode, and put the new sampled words into a new ROM.

    2. Yes, this struck me as well — Speak & Spell was LPC, not synthesized e.g. Votrax or SP0256 etc.
      Thanks for the Mitch Carr tidbit.
      I did make a quick-and-dirty SP0256-AL2 simulation once with a BluePill. It was simply recordings of the phonemes rather than implementing the actual digital filter. Still, it worked surprisingly well, and low resources.

  3. While you could get a chip from Radio Shack that would speak with phonemes, Atari 8-bit computers had a program called SAM (software automatic mouth). No hardware was needed and it was fairly understandable. Reminded me of an old man with sinus congestion speaking.

    1. Yes! My exposure to the SAM program was on the C64. Good memories. By the way, the code has now been ported to the ESP8266/ESP32 in the form of the ESP8266SAM Arduino library. It works great, complete with the software knobs you need to recreate your favorite voices like the little elf, strange alien, little old lady, and of course the stuffy old man!

  4. Talkie looks like a pretty nifty library, although the “Danger Danger” from the example on github made me think of Lost In Space.. “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” :D

  5. The quality of the TI/LPC TTS is not up to current standard if you were to develop a modern product (Like some Bose BT speakers, they are just lame in 2023)

    With cheap storage (SD card) and online neural TTS, any MCU can play pre-recorded sentences, indistinguishable from actual human, in any languages.

    What we are missing is a quality lightweight/open TTS easy to implement on embedded system (like not Android etc..) to be able to generate any text on the fly.
    Anyway at the end, if you are running on an ESP32 it would be actually better to simply stream from online TTS….

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