Most people don’t know that they have heard the voice of Susan Bennett in airports, automated phone systems, TV ads and, of course, as the original voice of Siri
Susan Bennett has had an incredibly long career using her voice. During the 60s and early 70s, she felt destined for a musical career and even toured as a backup singer for the likes of Roy Orbison and Burt Bacharach. However, the fame that would come to become associated with her beautiful voice would take her down an alternative and historical path.
68-year-old Bennett began doing voice overs in 1974. This first job would inadvertently be her first historical contribution to the humanization of computer interface. The world first, in fact. First National Bank of Atlanta asked Bennett to create a voice for the first talking ATM called Tillie the All-Time Teller. The American public was nervous about dealing with machines for banking transactions, and Tillie became the first ATM that the public came to trust.
Little did Bennett know that only decades later she would make another world first with her voice
During most of the 80s and 90s, Bennett’s anonymous voice was heard in TV advertising for companies like Coca Cola, McDonald’s and even in GPS systems. Delta Airlines used her voice to announce flight departures and arrivals. However, during July 2005, a Norwegian tech company called ScanSoft decided to employ Bennett to do some rather unusual voice-over work.
Mostly, Bennett’s voice over work involved pre-recording set phrases and sentences, more often than not in character. ScanSoft had different plans for her voice and asked her to record nonsensical sentences and phrases for four hours a day, five days a week, in her home recording booth.
Upon conclusion, she turned down a permanent contract. So far, she was unaware of how these strange phrases, such as “say the shroding again, say the shreding again, say the shridding again, say the shrading again, say the shrudding again” would eventually propel her to global stardom.
The world’s first concatenated speech
Dag Kittlous and his team from ScanSoft took Bennett’s voice recordings and used them to create the world’s first concatenated speech. In this way, Siri was born. Kittlous employed a team of programmers and technicians from both ScanSoft, and later Nuance. Together they used computers to extract individual sounds and intonations from Bennett’s recordings.
What would become Siri’s voice and personality, was reconstructed from Bennett’s deconstructed phrases and sentences. Kittlous explained that he chose the name Siri as in Norwegian it means “beautiful woman who guides you to victory.”
Initially, Siri started as a 3rd party app, on the iPhone’s app store. However, Apple realized that the Siri technology that ScanSoft had developed matched the vision for the Knowledge Navigator that they had been dreaming of since 1987. Swiftly, Apple bought Siri and incorporated the technology into every iPhone they developed from the 4S onward.
The mystery of Siri’s voice source
As soon as Apple made Siri widely available in October 2011, a fellow voice-over actor recognized Bennett’s voice and contacted her to ask if it was her. Bennett immediately recognized herself. However, she felt too afraid to reveal her identity. Initially, Bennett felt it was quite creepy that millions of people around the world were conversing with her voice. She was an anonymous household name.
Eventually, her husband and son convinced her to go public. It would be CNN who would reveal her identity as the voice of Siri in 2013. Ironically, it would be the same year that Apple stopped using her voice. From 2013, Apple notoriously began using a less publicly appreciated voice. The source of the new voice remains unknown.
Bennett doesn’t mind that she is no longer the voice of Siri
Coming forward has propelled her into the spotlight, and this recognition has seen her dramatically further her career. Additionally, she works as a public speaker, is available to emcee events, and has appeared in film and TV.
Nevertheless, Bennett does still appreciate a quiet private life. She currently resides in Atlanta Georgia and spends much of her time playing keyboard in a band with her husband.