You talkin’ to me? TTS 101 for the Kindle

Do you ever hear a voice in your head telling you…no wait, that’s a different discussion.  😉

You know how there’s all this talk about distracted driving?  Okay, admit it…have you ever read a book while you were driving?  Or a newspaper?  You know…when traffic stopped for a minute on the freeway, and…on second thought, don’t admit it.  Have you ever seen somebody else reading in the car?

I sure have.  Hey, when I was a kid, I used to ride a bike reading a book sometimes.  I knew somebody who smacked right into the back of a parked truck that way.

Now, I enjoy books frequently when I’m in the car.  Yep: check my mirrors (I am a law-abiding, cautious geek), turn on my book, release the parking brake…that’s part of the checklist.  I’ve listened to works by Dostoevsky L. Frank Baum,  Agatha Christie, and more.

Big deal, right?  Maybe you’ve been listening to audiobooks in your car since we called them “books on tape”.  Well, these aren’t audiobooks.  I’ve actually never gotten into audiobooks, although I love voicework (big fan of Paul Frees and Mel Blanc, actually).  I’ve listened to a couple…there was that weird 3-D audio audio thing of (I think) a Stephen King short story years ago.

I do like them, and love old radio shows.  But, I want to be able to sight-read the books, too.  I prefer that.  It’s just that I can’t sight-read in the car (see parked truck above), and it is sometimes tough to do at home (while vacuuming, for example).  It would be expensive to buy both a sight-reading book and an audiobook, and besides, one wouldn’t know where I was in the other one.

That’s one of the ways the text-to-speech (TTS, also T2S) in the Kindle 2 is great!   It’s also availble in the Kindle DX and the new Kindle International.  Only the Kindle 1 doesn’t have it in the family.   Hmmm…I guess the Kindle 1 would be the suspect if there was ever a crime committed in Kindletown, right? 

 “He just seemed like a regular Kindle, always with a book on his screen.  But he was so quiet.” 
“It’s always the quiet ones…”


I use it recreationally.  It’s just another way to access the material for me.  Of course, for some people it’s much more important than that.

How good is it?

Well, on a scale of  “James Earl Jones” to “nails on a chalkboard”, I’d say its somewhere around “NPR newscaster”.  😉

It doesn’t sound like it is a real person.  Heck, it doesn’t even sound like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey .  Interestingly, though, it is a real person’s voice and it isn’t based just on phonetics.   It does put in emphasis, and it really sounds like it making a point when it starts a sentence with, “In fact”.  However, it doesn’t know what the sentence is.  It just seems to be phrases and such put together.

That’s still pretty impressive: it says, “Kansas” and “Arkansas” correctly, which it wouldn’t do if it was just putting together the sounds.

On the other hand, it can’t figure out context sensitive words.  It doesn’t know when to pronounce “read” so it rhymes with the color red or a reed.  It doesn’t know what to do with “The cat with nine lives lives on this street.” 

Oh, and it’s most amusing errors seem to come with mistaking a word at the end of a sentence for an abbreviation.  I think it’s really designed to confirm orders and such on the phone.  So, it figures that “Nice to meet you, Miss.” should be, “Nice to meet you, Mississippi.”  You’d like it read “ASAP” as “Aye-Ess-Aye-Pee”, but that also means it reads “Shhh” as “Ess-Atch-Atch-Atch”. 

It reads a passionate love scene the same way it reads a speech before the General Assembly.  That doesn’t mean it is an unvaried drone.  It has emphasis in different parts of the sentence…but it’s the same for all material.

A lot of people just can’t stand it.  I, on the other hand, like it. 

You are probably wondering into which camp you would fall.  Well, my blog set-up doesn’t let me do audio files, but I can direct you to a place you can hear a sample.  It’s right here. That won’t work on a Kindle, because you can’t hear streaming audio on a Kindle, but you can do it from an iPhone or a computer. It’s from Andrys Basten’s A Kindle World.  You’ll also see  a picture of Tom Glynn, the male voice of the Kindle there.

If you want to keep the mystery of what Tom looks like, you can also hear the voice at the website of the company that makes it.  That’s here.  I’d recommend the A Kindle World version…it’s based on a little script I wrote to let me Kindle introduce itself to people, so it’s more Kindlecentric.  On the other hand, you can hear a lot more voices if you go to the Nuance site.  That’s the software maker. 

Yep, Amazon didn’t design the voice: they are using a commercially available program called RealSpeak.  That’s the same company that makes Dragon NaturallySpeaking , which goes the other way.  It converts speech to text, typing while you talk.  Lots of the medical people I train use it. 

I think it’s likely that Amazon may make some of the other RealSpeak voices available at some point, especially with the international launch on October 19th, 2009.  It isn’t available yet, just to be clear.  Oh, you can have Tom read Russian out loud to you…but it’s going to be really poorly accented…much worse than the American English he does now.

Those mispronunciations can be pretty funny, though.  I started a whole “discussion” about that in the Amazon Kindle Forum.  You might want to check it out: Tomisms .

What options do you have?

At time of writing, you can choose between a male and a female voice, and you can use one of three speeds.  I prefer the male voice on the fast speed, but I know there are other people who prefer the female voice and other speeds. 

How do you use it?

I prefer the “keyboard shortcuts” on this myself.  First, open up the book you want to read.  Then hit Shift +Sym.  Shift is the Up arrow.  These are the two outer keys in the lowest row, and I think that’s on purpose.  They are relatively easy keys for a vision-impaired person to find. 

You’ll see a little spinning thingy in your top left corner of the screen.  It will take a few seconds to get going.  Then, you’re off to the races…er, voices.

Here are the  keyboard shortcuts:

  • Shift+Sym: starts or stops TTS
  • spacebar: pauses or resumes TTS (note: while paused, you will not be able to use your prev or next page buttons)
  • Aa (to your right of the spacebar): change speech options while the Kindle is reading; start or stop text-to-speech
  • Home: Takes you back to home and gets you out of TTS

Note: Home-Menu-Experimental shows text-to-speech, but you can not access it there.  Your Kindle is broken, that’s the way it is supposed to work. 🙂


The Kindle actually “turns the page” along with the TTS reading.  That means you could, hypothetically, follow along.  Changing the speed of the voice will change the speed of the turns.  This can be very helpful for those hands-free sight-reading times…like on the treadmill, eating lunch, knitting…or if you have a physical challenge to actually holding the Kindle (arthritis or muscular sclerosis, for example).  If you don’t want to hear the voice, just turn down the volume.  The speakers have physical controls.  The details are in my music/audiobook post (see below). 

Those turns are also draining the battery more quickly: drawing the pages takes an effort.  I usually start the Kindle reading, and then put it to sleep.  It keeps reading while it asleep, by the way.  I listened to a K2 for about six hours on a road trip, and the battery still had some charge left.  For details on listening the car, also take a look at that music/audiobook post.

Isn’t there some controversy about using the voice?

There is.   I’ve written an article about the issue, which I allow to be distributed for non-commercial purposes freely.  I decided recently that a good way to do that would be to make it a post in this blog.  So, you’ll get it tomorrow (October 11).  In case you aren’t breathlessly reading this article as soon as it was posted 😉 , you can get to the other one  here…but not until it’s posted.

I just can’t stand the voice!  Can’t I play audiobooks on my Kindle?

Yes!  I posted about playing audiobooks and music before in this earlier post.  The audiobooks have real artists involved…but you can’t sync up the audiobook with your sight-book, which it does with the text-to-speech. 

So…heard any good books lately?  😉

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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