Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Text to Speech Software: A Brief Review

I read a lot. Sometimes I rotate reading 5 to 6 books at a time. On top of that, I download internet articles I happen to find or get linked to. Most of my reading I try to do in the evening after the kids are down or early on Saturday or Sunday mornings before anyone is up. In the last year or so, on occasion I have been taking the bus to and from work, so that allows me some extra time to catch up on my reading. But honestly, with a family demanding my time (and me wanting to give them the time), both pleasure reading and serious, sermon prep reading, can become quickly limited.

One way to help get my reading done is that I started downloading audio books. I have "listened" to several so far and I enjoy learning this way. I can read my book, as it were, while I am riding my bike, or on the bus, or when I have to spend time doing desk work at my job. The audio books have been a fabulous way to stay caught up on the reading I want to do.

The draw back with audio books, however, is that there isn't a whole lot of the heavy duty theology books I like to read in audio format. It's a great format for non-fiction, historical stuff I like to read, but not for commentaries on Acts, for example.

Then I heard how James White found some text to speech software that turns documents like Word and PDF files into a MP3 audio file that can be read to you. He was doing this with ebooks he was buying off Amazon. I thought that was a smashing idea, but I had a couple of problems: The cost of any such software and I am an internet/computer idiot so I didn't even know where to begin apart from a basic search. I needed to find a program that can turn large PDFs or any text document into an audio MP3 I can put on my Ipod.

So, I contacted a few friends I knew were computer whisperers and asked them if they personally had any recommendations for good TTS software that would be cost effective for me. After a week or so, my friend Peter Nelson wrote back with the following review and recommendations:

I am sure that I don't need to tell you there are lots of TTS software. Some of the freeware isn't bad at all, others are just plain awful. Some of the paid software is very good. After reviewing them I started listing to some things that made them outstanding in my opinion.

1. Adjusting the reading rate this is essential to actually get something that you can stand to listen to.

2. Multiple voices: I really hate to say this but James White is right: anything said by someone that is British is more enjoyable to listen to. Some of the programs had British speakers. Invariably these sounded better than the American voices.

3. Multiple file formats. Some will only read Text files other won't read any file you have to copy and paste the text into the "reading area" On PDFs this doesn't always work.

4. Ability to save to MP3 files. Seriously. Being forced to sit at the computer listening to these documents instead of putting them into my MP3 player and being able to travel to work on something; I might as well just read them.

Having said that here are the winners:


TTSReader http://www.sphenet.com/TTSReader/index.html Limited use. Can't load pdfs but txt and rtf files are good. Can make either mp3 or wav files and has free multiple voices.

SmartRead http://www.smartysoft.com/smartread/index.html Different voices txt (no pdf). Can convert to mp3.


Expressivo http://www.expressivo.com/index.php?lang=english This does it all and the voices are so good it's scary but not as scary as the price. You are definitely paying for the quality of the product here. But seriously. If you want to listen to those Master seminary documents this software makes it sheer pleasure. Throw subtle hints around the house and have the relatives chip in to buy you the express package. BTW British voices all the way.

Alive text to speech. http://www.alivemedia.net/textspeech.htm Yes you can get pdf etc. with this product but you can't open the pdf file and have it displayed in the program. Highlighting and copying to the program is the only way. Expressivo allows you to open the pdf in the program and convert it to MP3. Alive text to speech will convert to mp3.

Natural Reader http://www.naturalreaders.com/index.htm Didn't like the interface but it does have all the features I was looking for it's good but not as good as Expressivo. (sounds like an add doesn't it.) There were others but the even though they were like $29 the quality of the files they created (mp3) weren't worth the money. For my money if your going to spend some of your hard earned cash, get Expressivo.

Because Peter was sold on Expressivo, I thought I would give it a try. There is a thirty day trial version available that allows you to download the basic program and the available voices. I sampled the voices I was interested in at the main website and downloaded the ones I liked the most to test. I got the British "Brian" voice and the American "Joey" voice. I then downloaded The Infidel Delusion to be read to me by the British voice. I prepared a couple of other shorter articles to be read to me by the American voice. I will say the British voice is much more pleasant to listen to than the American voice. In fact, after sampling a couple of articles read to me by "Joey" the American, I preferred the "Brian" the Brit.

What are my thoughts?

Overall I love the program. It is worth the investment if one were wanting to expand his "reading" in an audio format.

There are some drawbacks, however.

- First off, listening to a computerized voice, regardless if it is suppose to be Cambridge English, takes a bit of getting use to. I found that I had to listen carefully or I would miss what was being said.

- Moreover, the vocal presentation can be choppy at times. It is a computer, to say the least, and not a natural, human voice. Hence, a computer will not emphasize -- or perhaps over emphasize -- some authorial nuance a human reader will know to pick up during the course of reading. This does present some entertaining listening. For example, I was particularly amused with how my British voice read the part of The Infidel Delusion describing the brains of Hector Avalos and Billy Graham floating in a jar. Also, words can be mispronounced, like "Parousia" being pronounced as PARASIS, as in paralysis.

- Being that this is a computer voice reading a PDF document, it reads everything. I mean everything. Page number, the content, the reference numbers for the footnotes, then the footnotes themselves. If the footnotes continue onto the next page of the PDF, the computer is going to return to the top of the page, read the content first, then conclude with the footnote from the previous page. It is things like this that explains what I mean by having to get use to listening to a computer read you a book.

Yet, in spite of these minor annoyances, the program is great. If a person is like me and is looking for an avenue in which to expand his reading, Expressivo provides a tremendous platform for text to speech study.

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Blogger RealityCheck said...

I looked into this kind of thing a while back and wasn't too happy with how it worked. Your post makes me think it's time to take another look. Thanks.

2:15 PM, December 19, 2010  
Blogger RealityCheck said...

Wow... just played with Expressivo on their website. Very impressive. Plus... once the kids saw (heard) what I was doing they got in on the act and had a blast having “Emma” say all sorts of things in a British accent.

Thanks again for this post Fred.

2:57 PM, December 19, 2010  
Blogger P.D. Nelson said...

You know if you were a real friend you would have corrected my grammatical error and change that "add" to "ad" these 53 year old fingers don't type as well as they formally did.

6:31 PM, December 20, 2010  

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