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Robot vs Real

Humans have long had rivalry with machines taking their jobs. From John Henry facing off against a machine to prove his steel-driving superiority, to automated factories taking away assembly line jobs. And now this competition has bled over into the voice acting industry. There is an (unfortunately) growing trend to use computer-generated voices for narration, instead of hiring a real life voice actor. So I wanted to make the case for not just myself, but all voice actors out there, as to why you should go with a real person as opposed to a machine.

Let's start with a very obvious advantage a real human has over a machine—we can tell if there's a typo. I mean, sure, your autocorrect feature kind of does (though truth be told, mine constantly tries to “correct” something that's already right and inserts gibberish), but the robot voice you'd set to read your script doesn't. Once I even encountered this with Google Maps as I was driving. It told me to take the exit to Annapoils instead of Annapolis, which sounded super weird and jarring and had me doing a double-take. Because what on earth is Annapoils? Had I gotten lost somehow? Human voice actors often encounter typos, and we (usually) know what the script writer meant, so can smoothly adjust. Forget a word, spell something wrong, accidentally type the same word twice...we can correct it in our delivery. Computers cannot.

Similarly, these programs aren't the best with correct pronunciation, even if you do have the word spelled right. Granted, human voice actors will also make some mistakes (I recently found out a word I'd pronounced one way all my life was, in fact, not pronounced like that at all), but it's not as common. Google Maps doesn't know how to properly pronounce the road that intersects with mine, pronouncing the ending “bue” as “bway” instead of the “bew” it's actually meant to have. I can only imagine how some of these programs mangle people's names. Certainly my Echo has trouble properly saying the names of Japanese composers I ask her to play.

Another glaring downside to using a computer for narration is just how clunky and unnatural it sounds. Some programs have definitely improved over time, but most of what I hear whenever I encounter something using this just sounds awkward and flat. There is no warmth, no proper inflection, no natural pauses. There's nothing to suggest that the narrator is actually human and actually understands what they are saying. But I guess the benefit to that is it really helps you know that phone call about Social Security or your car warranty is a scam, because the robot voice is just so blatantly fake. Not really a benefit for the people trying to do the scam, though.

The really confusing application I've seen it suggested for use with is audiobooks. Can you imagine? A bland robot voice reading you an entire book, not even bothering to do the fun voices? Even if it's a non-fiction book without dialogue, do you really want to endure hours of inflection-less droning? Non-fiction audiobook narrators are meant to make you feel just as engaged as fiction narrators, but I can't really picture a robot injecting that kind of interested tone and warmth.

Even the excuse of using the computer-generated narration to help with languages other than the one(s) native to the content creator (but native to the target audiences) is rather weak, considering there are services like FlyVoiceovers which have talent from all over the world at their disposal. It's easier than ever to find narrators for a variety of languages, so content creators can ensure they have all target audiences covered.

I'm not going to be like John Henry and try to duel a computer with seeing how long each of us can voice something, as it'll definitely keep on chugging while I crumple into a raspy mess eventually. But I will absolutely duel a computer in regards to believability and character of voice. (Also, I'd totally win in an audiobook duel with it, because I do all the fun voices.) That's why no matter how far those computer voices have come, they still are no match for the real deal.

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