With such an iconic voice she’s been on millions of Apple devices nationwide. You’ve asked her all sorts of questions while receiving some sassy responses in return. If you’ve never owned an iPhone, you probably have heard of her or used her on a friend’s device.
While you can ask Siri anything, I ask the original American voice of Siri, Susan Bennett, a slew of questions as she chats with me about how she landed her most famous project: Does she ever ask Siri and how has her life changed since revealing herself to the world.
Before your VO career, you were (and currently) a singer. What specifically led to being a voice over talent?
It happened by accident, really. Back in the late 70s, I was doing a lot of jingle work, back when they would record people to sing commercials for radio and TV. I used to do that a lot. One day the voice talent didn’t show up to read the copy of that spot, so the studio owner said, “Susan, you don’t have an accent. Come over and read this copy.” I did and I did it pretty easily and thought this could be another addition to my singing career. So I got a voice coach and an agent and I’ve been working ever since.
So if I have an accent, I wouldn’t be able to be a VO talent?
Well, yes. If you have a pretty severe accent that you can’t speak without, you’re limiting your range to very little. It’s really helpful to be as diverse as you can possibly be.
On October 4, 2011, Siri was birthed into the iPhone 4S. As the original American voice of Siri, you didn’t even know you were Siri. How’d you find out?
I got an email on October 4, 2011, from a fellow voice actor friend who said, “Hey, we’re playing around with this new iPhone app. Isn’t this you?” I said, “What? I don’t know anything about this!” So I went on the Apple site, listened and I was like yep, that’s me. How did this happen? It was very much a surprise.
And this all dates back to July 2005 when you did a big VO project, which we now know was going to be used as Siri.
There were many original Siri’s worldwide because of course, I don’t speak every language. Even though the voices were concatenated—meaning they took individual sounds from the recording and put them back together to make the answers that go on the different devices. In order for it to sound more natural, they needed native speakers. I’ve been in contact with some of the other Siri’s and we all pretty much had the same experience in the sense that, we thought we were just doing phone messaging and all of a sudden we became this entity that was on millions and millions of devices.
What was the negative drawback, if any, publicly being known as Siri?
It impacted our [the original voices of Siri worldwide] careers in a strange way. When you do the pedestrian VO work—GPS voice readings, phone messaging, that kind of stuff—your voice is pretty anonymous because nobody really connects with the voice, no one is really paying attention to the voice. They’re paying attention to the information that you’re disseminating, not the sound of the voice. But, when that anonymous voice suddenly becomes a persona like Siri, Cortana or any of those characters…
Some of the original Siri’s worldwide were men, they had names like Daniel or something instead of Siri. We sort of fell into the giant chasm of doing business as usual and the speed of the new technology. A lot of stuff didn’t keep up with that.
The original project that you were doing in 2005, did the company that you were working with tell you it was going to be for Apple or were you under the impression it was for a phone messaging project?
No, I don’t believe Apple got involved with it at that point. I’m not exactly sure when they started working on Siri. I don’t know the history of all of that. But, we were not told we were going to have anything to do with Apple and Apple never contacted any of us.
I’m sure you must have been pretty taken aback to hear your voice. You did that project in 2005, and in 2011 your voice debuted to millions. What was your emotion like when you found out?
Well, I had ambivalent feelings. On one hand, I was very flattered my voice had been chosen for such a big project. But, it was pretty upsetting not to know about it and all that it implies. People have a real tendency to stereotype you when you are this voice, this persona that everyone relates to and talks to on a regular basis. You might lose the anonymity you might have had that is very helpful to voice talent, so they can do a lot of different types of projects. So, on one hand, I was flattered, and on the other, I was horrified. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a positive or a negative thing as far as my career was concerned.
Have you ever had to go back in and create more words, sayings or whatever it is that Siri says?
Yes, I did. I did about 4 months of updates in 2011 and 2012. At that point in time, they had all the recordings and already started doing the concatenation. I think they got to the point where they started using bigger phrases and whole addresses. I would read whole addresses rather than some strange combination of words like I did in 2005.
Concatenation is where technicians and computers go into the recordings. The recordings we did were reading phrases and sentences that have been created mostly for sound rather than content. They were looking to pick out different syllables, words here and there, and sometimes small phrases, in order to put them back together to form new phrases and sentences. That’s what shows up on the devices. It’s the programmers and technicians that determine what Siri says, not the voice. It’s an incredible process. If you go back and listen to some of the original sounds and the new virtual assistants, they smoked them out even more. Audio logically, they are less bumpy than in the past. This is all a part of the very fast technology that is improving so quickly.
The original concatenated voice sounded “like this” [robotic] and no one would want to interact with a voice like that. That’s why the original Siri was very iconic because she sounded pretty human and you could interact with her. Siri was the first concatenated voice that sounded pretty natural.
Did you know how long your voice was going to last? I know they changed all the Siri’s?
They changed all the Siri’s with the iOS7 system, so if you have an iPhone 6 it’s no longer the original voices. We believe the reason that was done was because all the original Siri’s worked for the text to speech company and then Apple came in afterward and got our voices from them. I think we would have stayed on the phone if we had NDA’s [non-disclosure agreements] but the fact that our voices were purchased from a company and not from us, we didn’t sign a contract with Apple. Therefore, we were free to promote ourselves.
Apple has a really big thing about secrecy; they don’t like people knowing their business. They wanted the Siri voices to be anonymous, they didn’t want people to put a face or a personality with this entity. So they changed the voices and put those people under NDA’s. I don’t think you’ll ever find out who the new voices are. But on the other hand, things are always changing. Everything changes monumentally with technology very, very quickly.
Since Siri has changed, are you bittersweet that your voice isn’t being used anymore?
Well, I think I was a bit disappointed because it took me two whole years to decide to reveal myself. I revealed myself just as they were in the process of changing the voice over. Talk about timing [laughs], but the nice thing about being the original is being the iconic Sir. Siri Classic.
Because of that, I am able to promote myself and it has turned into a really fun and new aspect of my career. I do a lot of speaking engagements and that sort of thing. It opened up a whole new avenue for me, which is pretty cool.
Have there been any new projects since then?
I would say from the VO point of view, I’ve been a little disappointed. I usually end up getting Siri voice work, voices that sound like Siri or a phone operator. I was hoping that it would have opened some great doors for a different type of VO work. However, thanks to Siri, I’ve got a fabulous agent in Los Angeles and he’s absolutely wonderful. And that’s been a really big thing that I’m grateful for.
With that, do you regret coming out as the original voice of Siri?
No, I don’t. Once I made the decision everything was okay, but it took me so long to make that decision. I fretted over it for a really long time because it could have gone one of two ways: “Oh, she’s Siri; let’s get her” Or “Oh, she’s Siri; let’s not get her, she’s all over the place.”
Since you weren’t directly hired by Apple with no NDA if the opportunity presented itself, would you be open to switching over to be Cortana or some other voice for a competitor?
Well, that’s not going to happen. Everyone wants a very distinctive voice so there’s no way anyone would want someone doing the same thing for a different company. I don’t think that’s something I’d ever have to worry about.
In the VO community, do you usually sign NDA’s and have legal agreements where you aren’t allowed to come out, with a competitor or does that depend on the client?
Well, sometimes you’ll have to sign an NDA, although it’s fairly rare. I’m not sure if there is a conflict in radio, but if you’re on TV, the union rule states, for example, you can’t be the voice of AT&T and be the voice of Sprint at the same time. You aren’t signing anything by doing that, but you are obeying the union rules.
Yea, the Verizon guy was the guy for so long and now I see him doing Sprint commercials and even mentioning how he once was with Verizon. I’m sure that’s completely legal, but I thought to myself can he do that?
He couldn’t have done it unless he was finished up with his work at Verizon. I’m kind of surprised he did that [laughs]. But I guess that’s advertising. Usually, when you have a big contract like that, when it terminates, they want you to spend a certain amount of time before you work for someone else. I don’t know how he wrangled that one, but good for him; he’s making a lot of money [laughs].
Video courtesy of Funny Commercial Ads
Siri’s a Libra, like myself, and her personality seems very sassy and a bit rude.
I read something on the web when Siri first came out and I thought two guys may have been the creators. Surprisingly, Apple did not create Siri; it was three engineers. Apple bought the app from them and hired them to develop it. They said they wanted the voice to sound worldly and have a dry sense of humor. I suspect it was the engineers that chose the original voice to sound a certain way. I do have a pretty dry sense of humor and that may have come through the voice and made them choose it for that reason. I don’t know; I’d never know.
Why do you think people are so invested in this digital character?
I really don’t know; it remains a mystery to me. It’s hard for me to relate to that, actually. I think people enjoy Siri because it’s self-contained, you can play around with her and say things to her that you probably, should not or would not say to another real human [laughs].
Siri has become so important for autistic people and people who have a tough time relating to humans face to face. That’s been a wonderful thing and I know it’s been really helpful to autistic children. So I do understand why those types of people would relate to a human sounding machine. But as for everyone else, I guess it’s still a novelty. Siri will be five in October and it’s hard to believe.
If Siri was Jamaican
Do you have an iPhone? Do you ever ask Siri?
I do have an iPhone and our whole house is filled with Apple products (it was that way before I became the voice of Siri). I don’t talk to Siri very often. I tell people one of the first times I talked to her, she kind of dissed me and gave me a real attitude. I said, “Hi Siri, what are you doing?” she goes, “I’m talking to you” [Susan breaks out in the Siri voice]. I don’t know why this is, perhaps because I’ve been in voice work for such a long time. I don’t listen to audio books or talk radio. I get tired of hearing voice. My husband and son plague me all the time when I type into the phone instead of speaking into it. I like to be exact and technology hasn’t come to the point yet where it completely understands everything we’re saying, even when we’re articulate. You could imagine people with accents who have a tough time getting through to Siri.
Video courtesy of Susan Bennett
Do you prank anyone as Siri?
No, not really. Most of the people I know/interact with know that I’m the voice.
“I’ve talked to other original Siri’s, and Apple hasn’t said a word to any of us.”
Has Apple or anyone from their camp ever confirmed Siri was you?
No. The confirmation that I got was when I first revealed myself as Siri when I was on CNN. At first for CNN.com, until CNN decided it was a pretty big deal. They flew me to NY to be on their morning show. But before they did that, they said they really had to prove that I’m the voice. So, I gave them all sorts of names for people to call to prove that I’m the voice. They needed more proof so they hired a forensic audiologist. I did some recordings for him and he compared my voice to the voice on the iPhone and he said, “Yep that’s her, 100%.” So, they went ahead with the CNN program.
True to form, Apple loves to be secretive about everything. The closest I ever came to being acknowledged by Apple was when I was doing an appearance at a tech conference and Steve Wozniak (Co-Founder of Apple) was there. In fact, I introduced him. He’s a wonderful man, very interested in education; he’s just a sweet person. He said, “I love Siri, I use Siri all the time.” So the fact that I introduced him, as the voice of Siri, and he went along with that—that’s the only acknowledgment I ever had. I’ve talked to other original Siri’s, and Apple hasn’t said a word to any of us.
“Being this very exposed voice has had a detrimental effect on some of our careers.”
I’m sure what Apple did was legal as far as purchasing your voice from the text-to-speech company. But as a VO for Siri, Delta, and other phone systems—are there no residual checks every time your voice is being used?
No. All of the work that was done—when you do phone messaging that’s pretty much used permanently—they just use your voice on these phone systems. That’s why I was characterizing an anonymous voice they can use, and it’s a very well-known voice. It gets to be a really complicated thing. We never expected for our voices to be used in any major public way. It was implied that they were never going to use it in broadcast, but in fact, they used the Siri voice in tons and tons of commercials.
If I was in charge of this project, I wouldn’t have gone about it the same way. Being this very exposed voice has had a detrimental effect on some of our careers. I know that there was one original Siri, that happened to be a male. He found out he was Siri at a recording session. Ultimately, it turned out that the people he was working for were in conflict with Apple. When they heard it was his voice on the iPhone, he was no longer able to do the job he was doing. So not only was he not paid by Apple but he lost the job that conflicted with Apple [laughs in disbelief].
What have you learned from all of this?
There are some things you just cannot control. There are some things you cannot change, and you have to on some level, accept them. If you’re going to be bitter and sit around something that’s happened to you, the only person that’s really going to suffer from that is you.
I never aspired to fame. I’ve never never wanted to be a famous person. All I ever wanted was a lot of work. I loved my work and I’ve always just wanted to do more and more of it. I like to say that I was accidently famous because I really did not intend it. As soon as I accepted what had happened and tried to spin it to the positive for myself— revealing myself as Siri and taking the chances whether it was going to be good or bad for my career—once I truly accepted that I was that voice, some good things started to happen.
Would you say coming out overall was more positive than negative?
Absolutely, it was. As I said, I got a fabulous agent; I’ve done a lot of work, and this agent finally did get me paid on some commercials that have been using my voice and new speaker events that have come out of this whole ordeal. It’s turned into something really fun and really different.
As the voice for Delta gates, do you only fly Delta or get free flights?
No. I was paid to be the voice of Delta Airlines gates worldwide. But, I do tend to fly Delta because I live in Atlanta and their hub is there.
Hear Susan as the voice of Delta Airlines, Acura TSX, Chiquita Banana, Scrubbing Bubbles, Papa Johns, 101.5 Lite FM Miami and more!
Audio via Susan Bennett
Copy Edited By: Courtney L. Branch