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January 27, 2007

Computer voices

If you are a geek like me, and you hear voices in your head, are they computer generated voices?  No need to answer, but I have been thinking about computer generated speech recently.

A few weeks ago I remembered that my dad had brought home a 45 rpm record when I was a kid and he was very excited to say that it was the first recording of a computer singing a song.  I may actually have the record, but the recording is still available on the web and it has an interesting history.  It turns out that it wasn't IBM who made the first computer sing, but rather a researcher named Max Mathews who worked at . . . AT&T Bell Labs, which is where I worked as a contractor before leaving to start Gold Systems.  A shiver just went down my spine to think how my dad handed me that record so many years ago, and now I've worked at Bell Labs and continue today to be involved with speech recognition and applications that use speech synthesis.  And to this day, my company works with Avaya, the grandchild of AT&T.

But the coincidences continue - my friend Verna sent me a link to what may be the first scanner that plays music.  Mostly because she knows I'm a geek and a musician, so what could be better?  Why do people spend time doing things like this?  Because they can and who knows what it will lead to.  I'm sure people asked Mr. Mathews why he was wasting his time and what must have been very expensive computer resources to get a computer to sing a song.

And now for the best coincidence of all.  A few weeks ago my sister and I were trading songs names and memories via email.  She remembered an old favorite song book, which I found used on amazon.com and ordered just a minute or two before she was ready to send it to me as a gift.  This book was published in 1952 and it has a great foreword that talks about the songs that were sung in America around the Civil War and the turn of the century.  (And to me, the turn of the century still means going from the 1800's to the 1900's)  I received the book a week later (thanks amazon.com and an independent book seller somewhere!) and started to flip through it.  Guess what the VERY FIRST SONG was in the book?  Daisy Bell (A bicycle built for two) by Harry Dacre.  That's the song that the computer sang, thanks to Bell Labs, that I listened to as a kid and wondered about what other amazing things a computer could do.

Here's a site with more information on the song. According to that page, Alexander Graham Bell also used the song in a demo, so that's probably where Mr. Mathews got the idea to use it in his research.  Here's more on Mr. Mathews - he looks like a fun guy!  And I just found a link to the very same recording I listened to as a kid.  Scroll down until you see "Daisy".  The singing only happens after a nice long intro by a second computer that was generating the music.  You see, it does matter what music your kid listens to.

January 27, 2007 in Speech Recognition | Permalink


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And to close the loop, it's the song HAL sings as it dies in Kubrick's "2001...".

Posted by: Andy Blackstone | Jan 27, 2007 12:58:22 PM