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Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri, shares thoughts on her career, the gender gap in voice acting, and what it’s like to talk to yourself. Siri shares some pre-programmed responses.

She’s the familiar, sometimes sarcastic, infinitely meme-able voice on your iPhone, the proto Samantha-from-Her that can find you the nearest grocery store and/or awkwardly reject your sexual advances with the touch of a button or those magic words: “Hey, Siri.”

If it’s strange to think about an interface that’s able to respond to questions and requests like a person, it’s even stranger to remember that Siri is the voice of a real woman: Susan Bennett, an Atlanta-based voice actor who spent a month recording nonsense sentences for text-to-speech software that eventually became the ubiquitous Apple personal assistant.

Speaking to her for just a few seconds, it’s impossible not to be struck but how beautiful her voice sounds. It’s honey drizzled over melted milk chocolate and wrapped in that trusted friend from your hometown that you can call about anything. 
 

SOMEECARDS: So do people know that you’re Siri when they hear you? Or is there just a strange familiarity sometimes?

SUSAN BENNETT: No, not really. People don’t usually recognize my just everyday speaking voice because it’s a little bit different than Siri’s — it’s a little bit higher pitched than the Siri voice, and also, it’s a point of context. It’s completely out of context; they don’t expect to hear the voice outside of their phone or their iPad.

 

SEC: So did you have a specific voice in mind, a voice you were going for when they asked you to do Siri?

SB: Well, they didn’t really ask me to do Siri. The story of all digital voices is we started off working for a text-to-speech company and, at the time — this was 10 years ago — we thought we were just recording for phone systems, an offshoot of the on-call messaging that we had been doing previously. And certainly those of us who were working “in the field” at the time didn’t really have any idea where phone systems were going in the future.

It was really hard to imagine that a phone system was going to be a miniature computer that you held in your hand and interacted with. So, we were all sort of surprised — there are many original voices of Siri (I was the North American English) — so it was kind of a surprise when we ended up on all of these devices.

 

SEC: When you were recording for these systems, did you have a “personality” that you were going for with your voice?

SB: Basically for digital voices, such as Siri and others, you’re basically doing the opposite of acting. It’s very tedious work because you are reading sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase, that were created solely to get all of the sound combinations in the language. So as you can imagine, many of these sentences made no sense at all. And it’s very repetitive stuff: “say the ‘shrodding’ now, say the ‘shrading’ now, say the ‘shreeding’ now” — things that are just mind-numbingly tedious.

And the thing that makes it tedious as well is you’re repeating the same type of phrase again and again, and it has to be done with the same cadence, the same pacing, the same pitch, so it is extremely tedious work, and I’m happy to say I no longer do much of it. [Laughs] I put in my time; let’s put it that way.

 

SEC: How long did it take?

SB: Well, the original vocabulary that became Siri was recorded in July of 2005, four hours a day, five days a week. So it was intense.

 

SEC: Do you remember when you found out what Siri was going to become?

SB: Oh yes! It was the day Siri was introduced, and that was October 4th 2011. A fellow voice actor emailed me and said, “Hey, we’re playing around with this new iPhone! Isn’t this you?’ So I went on the Apple site and listened to it, and said, “Yes… that’s me.” So, surprise, surprise!

 

SEC: What’s it like hearing yourself in commercials?

SB: Well, I’m used it. I’ve been doing this for decades now, so I’m used to hearing myself in commercials, and on radio and television. And I’m used to hearing myself if I show up doing the narration for a documentary or something like that. But it's extremely strange, and creepy actually, to have my voice coming out of this little tiny computer, interacting with me. That…that took a moment.

 

SEC: Do you remember the first conversation you had with Siri?

SB: I remember one of the first ones. She kind of dissed me.

 

SEC: She’s kind of sassy!

SB: She is! She can have an attitude, for sure. I said, “Hi Siri, what are you doing?” and she rather disgustedly said, [perfect Siri voice] “Talking to you.”

 

SEC: This is a YouTube video waiting to happen. You have to record yourself doing this.

SB: [Laughs]

 

SEC: Does your family think she sounds like you? Or has the voice changed so much through that filtering, monotone process?

SB: Well, they did do a lot of compression, and of course Siri — especially the original Siri — was much more robotic than a normal human would sound, but I think basically people who know me well recognize the voice. Although, you know, there was a two-year period where I wasn’t telling people that I was that voice, and [after I revealed myself], some people said, “Oh we just thought it was obvious!” and then other people said, “Really? That’s you?” So I guess it just depends on how good an ear some people have.

 

SEC: Unrelated to Siri, do you have a favorite promo or ad that you’ve done voiceover work for?

SB: Well I have to say, the one closest to my heart is the singing chicken for Zeneca Agricultural Products, which I did several years ago, and it’s just hilarious. Just a singing chicken, and then I squawk at the end. So it’s really hard to top that.

 

SEC: How did you get into voice acting? It seems like such an interesting niche.

SB: Well, I got into it sort of accidentally because I’m a musician — I’ve been playing the piano since I was four, and singing seriously since high school. And in Atlanta, where I still live, I started doing a lot of studio work, and at the time, they recorded a lot of jingles. Nowadays they’re using a lot of old rock and roll for jingles, but in the past, almost every new spot had original music. So we had a lot of work, and it was the type of situation where four or six people would go in and sing together, gathered around one or two mics, instead of overdubbing just one or two people the way it’s done today.

And one day the voice talent didn’t show up to do the spot, and the owner of the studio said, “Susan, you don’t have an accent. Come over here and read this.” So I went over and read the spot, I did the spot, and I thought ding! Ding! Ding! I can do this! So that was the beginning, and that was many, many years ago. So I got some voice coaching, and I got an agent, and that was that.

 

SEC: Have you noticed a difference between the demand for a female versus a male voice?

SB: Well, I know that males get most of the work. That’s just a fact. I guess there are just different roles that continue to be assigned to the different sexes. I think you hear a lot of male voices because traditionally, a male voice is considered to be more associated with gravitas and authority. And you’ll find female voices on things that require shared information or something having to do with compassion. You’ll always hear a female voice on health care things, or cosmetics and beauty products and things like that.

 

SEC: Did you see the [2013] Lake Bell film, “In A World” all about female voice actors in the movie trailer industry? Did it ring true?

SB: Yeah, that was a great movie. Lake Bell did a great job. It was really, really great. I think it’s true — I had looked into doing some promos, and I spoke to a promo agent, and she said, “Well, I’d love to take you on, but I just let go of two of my females, because there just isn’t that much work for females.”

Once again, it's that gravitas thing, that [deep voice] “in a world.” I think You’d have get Bea Arthur’s cousin to do some of the stuff that those guy movie trailer readers do. So that’s where that stands.

It’s really hard to overcome [those inherent biases]. Maybe in a couple of decades we won’t associate the male voice with that kind of thing. I think it’s changing a bit, and there are certainly more opportunities for women than there used to be, but overwhelmingly, it’s the men that have most of the work, and the big paying work, I have to say too. Some of those guys like Don Lafontaine, are making just millions every year.

But on the other hand, people who do promo work and movie trailer work have to be available all the time. My theory on it is, what kind of life are you going to have if you do nothing but walk around with a laptop and microphone? And you can’t take a vacation because someone might call you, and then if they call you and you’re not there, they won’t use you anymore. It’s tough, so they earn that money. They do. Because they spend every single second of their life on-call.

 

SEC: Do you know when you’re making a commercial whether it’s good or bad? Do you pass judgment on what you’re reading?

SB: Yes. And many times you can tell in an audition what you’re dealing with, and usually, it’s the things that pay the least that are the most poorly written. You have to get the point where you just have to wonder how much it’s worth it to have your voice associated with this type of thing.

Back in the day, when there was a system in place, all broadcasting went through the union. But now, with just the feeling is that people aren’t very interested in unions anymore. And especially with the Internet, and technology making everything and everybody available, it’s really devalued what we do. I think it’s had a big effect on the quality, but it’s also had a huge effect on people’s income.

It’s just another offshoot of what we’re dealing with — basic corporate attitudes and behaviors. You see auditions come over email from humongous corporations, and you know they can afford to pay union, and you know that they’ve paid union in the past, but now, they can get away with doing non-union, so they do. It’s a problem. It’s a real problem and I’m not really sure how you solve it. It’s definitely a different business than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

 

SEC: It’s so interesting. This hidden industry, subculture that most people don’t think about.

SB: It’s an interesting thing that’s happening now with voice over, because in the past, when people asked what I did for a living, I would say, “Oh, I’m a singer and a voice talent.” And they’d say, “A what?” and after I’d explain it to them, they’d say, “Oh! I’ve never heard of voiceover.”

Now, I’m sure because of movies and the publicity around it, everyone wants to be a voice talent, and pretty much anybody can be, because if you have an iPhone and a MixerFace and a decent closet, you’ve got a studio. And in today’s culture that seems to be not very accepting of professionalism and experience, it’s sort of like [valley girl accent] let’s get that quirky voice, that’s really cool, let’s get that one! And they hire that person, and they might have a quirky voice, but can they read?

It may come full circle like many other things, but we’ll see. There are different trends in advertising as time goes on. I’m sure it’ll evolve in another way.

To learn more, check out Susan on Twitter at @SiriouslySusan, or her website