Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mike’s Speech Synthesizer (Part I)


 As a kid growing up in the early to mid-eighties, it would seem almost unnatural to NOT be thoroughly entrenched in the technological infancy that was the home computer industry at the time. Or at least that is what I told myself for lack of having friends and being socially awkward at the time, as well as today.

   My first home computer was the Texas Instruments TI 99/4a. It was a cumbersome machine as far as expandability and peripherals were concerned but none the less I had hours and hours of fun manning its keyboard. I was delighted to program it, since the TRS-80 Model III's they had at school had neither color nor sound. Texas Instruments was beginning to feel the squeeze in the home computer market and needed to pedal more of its wares out the door so I believe they offered the machine with a free speech synthesizer, which is how I got mine.

    This technology blew me away in 1983. An actual computer that could talk at my command. I think I played with that thing every day for a year. I even rigged up a device in my bedroom that would move a joystick when a door was opened and would trigger the computer to greet you upon entry.  It was like I was living the future and I was merely eleven years old.

    For all the short comings that the TI 99/4a computer had, I still held it dear within my heart. And this carried through when I picked up a used one for ten dollars at a flea market, spent another twelve on a speech synthesizer from eBay, and paid another ten dollars to get a Terminal Emulator II and Extended BASIC cartridge. The planets were aligning once again in 2012 for me to rekindle my interest in speech synthesizers. 


       Once all the pieces had arrived in the mail it was time to put them all together in my garage and make the past once again come alive with artificial voice. Above is a small program I cobbled together using TI Extended BASIC. It is not much but it did reignite my love of speech synthesizers, and further motivated me to press on in my tinkering of such things. I actually felt a bit giddy when I heard that robotic voice that I had not heard in nearly thirty years.

"E" is for ERROR!
      Suffice it to say I was not done playing with the TI 99/4a and it's speech capabilities. I set everything up in the living room and then wrote a small text to speech program using the Terminal Emulator II cartridge and it's many speech algorithms. This gave us all a few hours of enjoyment. I think the kids got the biggest kick out of it. Here is a photo of the little one teaching the other little one how to spell words that are spoken. This would have worked out rather well if it were not for the limitations of having to negotiate which words the program could phonically speak out when spelled correctly. None the less both kids were on the machine for no less then two hours straight. I found that rather amazing that in this day and age a few kids could be so engrossed with a piece of technology over thirty years old. In fact they used it for so long it actually burned out the VDC (Video Display Controller). I still need to fix that.

    So at this point I was left with no machine to fulfill my need for speech synthesis. The TI 99/4a was out of commission, and I hadn't picked up the Speak And Math in six months. I was not sure what I was going to do. 

    Luckily, it was around this time that a friend of mine had seen the TI Speaketh video and had asked me if I had ever played with a Speakjet speech synthesizer. I had no idea what this was and inquired further. It would appear that this Speakjet chip was a fully functional speech synthesizer that worked a lot like the old Votrax SC-01 speech synthesizer, in that they formed words out of allophones and diphthongs and such. You simply passed serial data to it and it would read the data out of it's buffer first in, first out. No more needed to be said. I had to have one of these.

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