People often turn to look at her when they hear her voice. She looks familiar. There’s Heike Hagen standing in front of them, but they can’t quite place her and many seem a bit confused when she starts to speak. Heike Hagen was the German voice of Apple’s speech software, Siri, and has also narrated more than 60,000 minutes of TV footage. She also records audio books, and does voice-overs for American TV series, films and commercials, and voices street names in satnav systems. She owns her own recording studio in Berlin and also produces her own music under the pseudonym ‘Velve’. She owns her own recording studio in Berlin and also produces her own music under the pseudonym “Velve”.
6 hours a day in front of the microphone being the voice of Siri
Heike Hagen’s most famous project involved lending her voice to Apple’s Siri speech software. “Recordings for voice guidance systems are really exhausting, because you have to read huge mountains of texts out loud sequentially for months on end, often for six hours a day”, she explains:
“Your mouth is usually just a few centimeters from the microphone and the distance continually re-measured, which means maintaining the same posture throughout the six hours to ensure that the volume remains the same.
Everything has to stay as consistent as possible so that the software can splice the individual takes together later”.
Professional text voicing is not unlike practicing a sport: training is the be-all and end-all
It takes more than just a pleasant voice to succeed as a professional narrator – training is the be-all and end-all. “You need to warm the muscles must up”, Hagen explains, “and speaking involves many muscles. It’s no different to sports training: you first have to warm up the muscles and then there are several other steps that you should do before being able to perform as a narrator, including limbering up the muscles, breath training and then practicing enunciating the consonants and vowels nice and cleanly. There are some really nice exercises you can do, in combination with Thai Chi and Yoga, to imbue your voice with a certain volume and luster.
The final part involves role play – practicing switching between the different demeanors and attitudes a professional speaker has to be able to embody and portray from one second to the next, as well as the tempo changes. You often encounter situations where you have to voice complex recordings on the first take, with no second chances. You need to be able to shoot from the hip and adapt in the twinkling of an eye.
“Preparation is half the battle” says Heike Hagen.
“I might only have a single sentence to say”, the 48-year-old continues, “but it will always be preceded by an hour of voice training”.
There is no such thing as “just another day at the office” for Heike Hagen …
“Today”, she says, “I’m looking over a contract for major audio book production. I’ve already printed off the manuscript and am currently preparing for my role. It’s 200 pages long, so it’s a lot of work. After that”, she continues, “I’ll need to talk to the producer again about the overall style and approach. The actual speaking is the smallest part of the job.
The lion’s share is administration, as contracts are getting increasingly complex, even for the most minor productions. I also do my own sales and marketing: for instance, I’ve just updated my homepage with 14 new sound samples”.
Between voice-over specialist and dubbing artist
Professional narration is a many-faceted field. Heike Hagen, for example, is also involved in voice-over projects. “That was often called for during the TV documentaries for which I’ve narrated 60,000 minutes”, she says: “It doesn’t involve lip-synchronization: it’s sufficient just to roughly match the subject’s pitch and attitude. You try to adapt to how the person moves and to match variations in their speech – whether it’s animated or more relaxed, for example”.
Lip synchronization is an exciting challenge
Lip-synchronization is more challenging for Heike: “My favorite thing is lending my voice to virtual characters in video games” she says. And the synchronization process is also exciting. “There’s a huge clock in the studio, which counts down, say from 4 down to 1 and you know you need to start on 1. You’ve got an open folder in front of you which contains the texts with numbered scenes. You read it through once then watch the scene – and then … 4, 3, 2, 1 and off you go! So, you’ve only watched the scene once before to see how fast it goes and where you have to breathe. But, that’s exactly what’s fun about it”, she concludes with a smile.
An enduring fascination and great passion for language
She has always harbored a certain fascination for language, but her original orientation was somewhat different: she wanted to be an interpreter. “Even today”, she explains, “whenever I’m at an event where there’s an interpreter present, I find myself hanging on his or her every word – assuming I’ve got at least a smattering of the language in question, that is. I’ve always loved language and had a bit of a flair for it.
Languages were also my best subjects at school apart from art and music”. As it transpired, however, Heike ended up in radio before going on to other things, having completed a voluntary placement with a radio station at the age of 19 as part of her media-specific vocational training. This training involved a drama teacher who was completely enthralled by her voice.
Heike’s teacher: “You have to make a career of your talent!”
How Heike Hagen ended up on the iPhone
The iPhone – smartphone par excellence and Apple’s flagship product – owes its cult status not least to Siri, the pre-installed software and the personal assistant, which “talks” to its iPhone owner, helps with various tasks and provides all kinds of information.
Casting with 100 competitors
To become the voice of Siri, Heike Hagen first had to upstage numerous competitors at a casting, not hosted by Apple itself, but rather by Nuance, a market leader in speech recognition solutions, known among other things for their Dragon Dictate dictation software, who sold their speech recognition technology to Apple, which included the Siri voice used in the first iPhone generations under the iOS 5 and iOS 6 operating systems.
At the time when Heike Hagen made her recording, she still assumed her voice would be used by Nuance for navigation systems and certainly never expected it to be heard on millions of smartphones.
The original voice of Siri in English: Susan Bennett
Apple is known for leaving nothing to chance, which is evident in the choice they made for Siri’s original English voice. As with Heike Hagen, the voiceover artist for the German version of Siri, the voiceover artist chosen for the American version of Siri also had a voice familiar to the users.
We are talking, of course, about the US dubbing artist Susan Bennet, whose voice is familiar to many viewers from numerous TV commercials. She, too, never assumed that the text modules and often pointless terms she recorded back in 2005 would one day be used for speech recognition on the iPhone.
Who’s behind the male Siri voice?
In the first few iPhone releases the only standard voice available on Siri was female, but that’s all changed and users can now choose a male voice. It has not yet proved possible to establish the identity of the person behind the male voice.
Rumors suggest that it may be the German actor and dubbing artist Tobias Nath, who dubbed the character “Q” in the German version of the James Bond movie “Skyfall” and became known to the public through a series of other dubbing roles.
What does the name Siri mean?
Siri is an acronym that stands for “Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface”. Usually the acronym exists before the abbreviation. In the case of Siri as Apple software, it’s the other way around. The first name Siri already existed before the Apple software and is of Scandinavian origin. The Swedish female first name Siri is related to the name Sigrid, which is also widely used in Germany, and the Finnish female name Siro. The name Siri, and/or variations of it, is also known beyond Europe borders, for example in Thailand where it means “luck”.
Siri is much easier to pronounce than the full name, but Apple certainly didn’t just have pronunciation in mind when naming the talking software, at least that’s what one might think.
But it’s quite a different matter …
Siri was the company name even before it was sold to Apple in 2010. Dag Kittlaus, one of the founders of the company, initially wanted to use the name for the baby he and his wife were expecting, and registered the associated domain with wise foresight. As the new addition to the family turned out to be a boy, he was only able to use the name Siri a little later when the company was founded.
A wise choice of name, even though Dag Kittlaus originally had no idea how clever it would prove to be: clever, because it is easier to establish a “personal” relationship with a software assistant with a female name. Other language assistants that were launched after Siri were also given female names (e.g. Alexa or Cortana), but quite deliberately in these cases.
Millions of users worldwide ask Siri questions of a general nature about such things as the weather forecast, the time or travel times to specific destinations. In addition to useful information, the digital assistant sometimes responds with a witty quip. In answer to the question “what does Siri mean?” Siri says: “The name “Siri” has many subtle, metaphorical and sometimes contradictory meanings. But I’m afraid I can’t talk about it”.