RP2040 Emulator Brings The Voice Of The 80s Back To Life

You may not have heard, but there’s a chip shortage out there. And it’s not just the fancy new chips that are in short supply; the chips that were fancy and new back when you could still buy them from Radio Shack are getting hard to come by, too. For different reasons, of course, but it does pose a problem that requires a little hacking to fix.

The chip in question here is the General Instrument SP0256, a 1980s-era speech synthesizer chip that [Andrew Menadue] relies on. The LSI chip stored 59 unique allophones, or basic sounds the vocal tract is capable of, and synthesized speech by rapidly concatenating these sounds. The chip and its descendants made regular appearances in computers and games throughout the 80s, so chances are good you’ve heard it. If not, think WarGames (yes, we know that wasn’t actually a computerized voice) or [Stephen Hawking] and you’ll be pretty close.

[Andrew]’s need for such a chip stems from his attempts to give voice to his collection of Psion Organisers, another 80s relic that was one of the first pocket computers. Some time ago he built a speech board for the Psion based on the SP0256-AL2, but had to resort to building an emulator for the chip since none were to be had. The emulator uses an RP2040 and lives on a PCB that has the same footprint as the original chip, so it can just plug right in. He dug up WAV files of the allophones and translated those to sequences of bytes, allowing the RP2040 to output the correct sounds as they’re called for. Speaker problems notwithstanding, it sounds pretty good in the video below.

We’ve featured a fair number of SP0256 projects before, on everything from Amstrad to Z80. We’ve also shown off a few of [Andrew]’s builds before, including this exploration of the voltage tolerance of the RP2040.

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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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