One thing that almost all iPhone users today recognize is the original voice of Siri. Aside from the dozens of conversations and inappropriate questions we’ve asked her, we’ve never really put a face to the name before CNN outed voice-over actor Susan Bennett almost exactly a year ago as the original voice of the Siri app. Since then, Susan’s fame has exploded.
I recently had the chance to interview Susan Bennett. As an iPhone user myself who has depended on Siri many times to read my emails, make calls, and text while driving, it was a treat.
In our interview, we talked about how Susan Bennett got her start in the voice-over acting business, what the process of recording Siri’s voice was like, and the many other voices she’s provided for companies you’ve probably heard of before.
You initially wanted to become a teacher. What led to the career change?
“I don’t think I really knew exactly what I wanted to do. I had been a musician — I’ve been playing music since I was 4 and I was in bands during college, but I never really thought it would end up being a career. I started off with the idea of being a teacher and then I don’t know where the turning point came, but I got married out of college and we ended up moving to Atlanta from New England. I just thought, ‘You know I’m gonna try this music thing,’ so I ended up doing that and that just led to other things which eventually led into the voice-over world.”
How did you discover your talent for voice-over acting?
“It was totally accidental. This is back in the day — we won’t know the exact date but you can probably guess — when they used to do a lot of commercial jingles with actual real singers that would show up in the studio. It wasn’t one person over-dubbing the way it’s done now mostly. So, there were four or six of us singing on a jingle and the voice-over talent didn’t show up, so the owner of the studio said, ‘Susan, you don’t have an accent. Come over here and read this,’ and I went, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’ So, I took some vocal coaching and got an agent and started doing it.”
Tell us a little bit about how you got the gig for Siri in 2005. From what I understand, you had no idea you were recording the voice all iPhone users would recognize today, correct?
“Yes, that’s true. I was working for a company that I still work for actually and have worked for for many, many years, and we had just this gigantic project, and if you’re a freelance person it’s always a good thing to have a job. So this was a very big job and it ended up being text to speech. We were told that it was for a phone system and mostly what I had always done was ‘Thank you for calling. Please press one,’ so I thought it was more of the same. Actually, it was pretty interesting because the precursor to this particular project was that I did some recording for Lusion Technologies for whom I had to wear this something called a laryngograph that went around my throat that picked up the actual sounds from the vocal chords as I was speaking, and I had to speak very articulately. It was really fascinating because it was the beginning of all this digital stuff. That must have been 2003, 2004.
But anyway, we did all this recording in 2005, four hours a day, five days a week for the month of July 2005. Even though it’s only nine years ago, that’s like the dark ages technologically speaking, so we didn’t really know what we were doing because at that point in time — I’m sure Steve Jobs and a few other folks could have imagined this — but we could not have really imagined that the phone system was going to end up here, interacting with us, so that’s what made it iconic. It was a really a breakthrough.”
What was the recording process like for you guys?
“It was extremely long, tedious and boring, I’ll have to say. Four hours is a long time, so we took several breaks. Essentially, I was reading sentences and phrases that had been created to have the greatest combination of sounds in the English language. The process of extracting those sounds and creating other sentences and phrases is called concatenation. The thing that made the original Siri voice so iconic is that it was the first time it actually sounded human. In years previous to that, the concatenated voices were [sounds robotic] ‘Hello thank you for calling.’ It was very, very, extremely robotic and very inhuman sounding. That’s why Siri was a breakthrough — well, also the fact she would respond.”
Yes, I remember that I occasionally got attitude from Siri.
“[laughs] My theory is that I have a tiny bit of attitude myself, I guess, but my theory is that it came from all those hours, hour upon hour of recording because your voice just naturally gets tired and you start perhaps getting a little bit lower and maybe sounding like you have a little more attitude. Combination of those things I think.”
Have you had any conversations with Siri? What’s the funniest thing she said to you or most memorable?
“I never really spoke to her that much because, to tell you the truth, it took me a while to become adjusted to the fact that I was talking to myself [laughs]. So I never really used the app that much, but I did ask her one day, I said, ‘Siri what are you doing?’ Her response was ‘I’m talking to you’ [laughs]. But the funniest thing was when I had just bought an iPhone 4 when the 4’s came out and I wasn’t going to run out and buy a new phone but my husband did. When he had it originally, he had it on some setting mistakenly so that every time he would pick up the phone, Siri would just say, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘What can I help you with?’ He was getting very frustrated with it and so he just finally said, ‘Oh just go away!’ and she goes, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ so he thought, ‘Hmm, that voice sounds very familiar.‘ ”
Susan having a conversation with Samuel L. Jackson
Do you remember voicing everything for Siri?
“Oh no. No, no, no. In fact, I wish I had saved the script because I think that it would have been very interesting to go back and look at those sentences, knowing where they ended up. It was very tedious. Like anything else, it’s a skill and it’s something that you learn to do and have to be able to read in a consistent way and pronounce things and have the same basic approach to your speech. But it’s not what you would call creative [laughs].”
You were relatively anonymous before you were outed. What was it like having all this newfound fame?
“Well, basically it was just really a lot of fun because I never really used the Siri app myself that much. It was a real surprise to me how many people had such a vested interest in this character and how much they developed a relationship with the persona of Siri, so it was a really interesting thing.”
Has Apple ever reached out to you in any way?
“Well, that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t come out as Siri for such a long time, because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to deal with it. First of all, of course, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes legally, including my own. But another aspect of it was, in this digital age for those of us in the voice-over business, anonymity can be a precious thing because people aren’t going to judge you by how you look, where you’re from, how old you are, all those things. They’re just judging you by your voice when they hear an audition and they don’t recognize your name. But then it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s the voice of Siri – oh okay we knew who you are – oh okay.’
Of course, I never would have disclosed the information if I had a non-disclosure agreement, which I did not have. But the closest thing Apple has come to acknowledging me — my son told me the other day — is that when you ask Siri who Siri is, it says Susan Bennet. But also, I’ve become email buddies with Steve Wozniak because I had an opportunity to introduce him at a tech conference in Dallas back in December. He is just a wonderful person and he really loves the Siri app. The fact that he acknowledged me, that was probably as close as we’re ever going to get to Apple saying something.
If there is something about the digital voices that all of the people who used them, including the GPS people and any other company, there is something that is really important to them about the mystery of it. I think that’s why in iOS7 they changed the voice of all the original Siris. I think it’s because all of a sudden they realized, ‘Oh, well now everyone knows who all these different people are,’ because I know John Briggs in England came out and promoted himself about it as well as the woman who does the Australian accent.”
Do you feel any sort of sadness that they don’t use your voice anymore?
“I guess, because it took me such a long time to get used to being that persona, and then all of a sudden it’s, you know, but I mean I’ll always be the original [laughs].”
Where else would we find your voice at?
“It’s really hard to say because my voice is pretty much everywhere. The thing about digital voices or voices that are a part of our everyday lives is that, for the most part, we don’t notice them unless you’re in the business. Unless you’re a person that’s very tuned in and you are specifically listening for those things, you will notice. I’m always shocked when someone says, ‘Aren’t you the voice on such and such?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, how did you figure that out?’ On the other hand, there are some people that I know that have known me for years that did not know I was Siri. Other people have said, ‘Really, it’s so obvious,’ but all of those voices are manipulated too. There’s a story that I have about Halloween — a little kid came to get candy last Halloween and said, ‘My neighbour said that you’re Siri,’ and I said, “Yes I am,” and he said, “You don’t sound like Siri,” and I said, [Siri Voice] “How about now?” and he went [shocked face].
So, I don’t know a lot of them … I mean I know it’s on the Waze app and I know I’m the voice in the train in Brooklyn. I don’t think I’m stepping on any toes by saying that I’m the voice of Delta Airlines gates worldwide, so I’m the one that tells you to get out your boarding pass. I’m on a lot of different metro train systems and in a lot of banks. I have the bank voice. My son Cam found it very amusing during his college years that I was the voice of his bank at that time [laughs]. It’s really kind of hard to escape me.”
You have a son and obviously you’ve reached a good level of success. As a mother, what’s the greatest advice that you have ever given to your son?
“My two biggest things are work first, play second. But also I think it’s really important to find what you love. I think that in this billionaire and celebrity-crazed culture, a lot of people are missing the point — if your job is really going to take up anywhere between 80 and 95 percent of your life, if you hate your job, you’re going to hate your life, so I think it’s really important to find that thing that you can do.
Not everybody has that ability; not everybody is lucky enough to do that. I mean, most of us do have to figure out ways to make a living and put food on the table and that sort of thing. But if you can find a way to put food on the table and then find your thing that you really love to do and then hopefully make your living that way, that’s to me the greatest success there is – to really love what you do and to be able to make a living at it. It’s a real joy.”
Follow Susan Bennett on twitter @SiriouslySusan
Photography by Melly Lee