Donate your Voice!

Donating your voice to help Motor Neurone Disease sufferers

Did you know that you can ‘donate’ your voice for the benefit of adults who suffer from Motor Neurone Disease? The Voicebank Project has been set up by the University of Edinburgh in conjunction with the Euan MacDonald Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research. This research project aims to create a library of voices that can be used to ‘reconstruct’ patients’ natural speaking voices, including accent, for voice output communication aids.

Why is the Voicebank Project necessary?

Perhaps the most famous voice output communication aid (or ‘VOCA’) user and MND sufferer alive today is Professor Stephen Hawking. I think most of the modern world is familiar with the very synthetic and unnatural voice that his VOCA, The Machine, produces. Whilst professor Hawking’s device has been upgraded over the years, it seems that he has come to see the synthetic voice it produces as his own and has refused an upgrade to more natural sounding speech. In fact, I believe he has even copyrighted his synthetic voice, that means if you hear his voice on anything from The Simpsons to Big Bang Theory, yes, it really is him! You can find out more about Professor Hawking’s voice and The Machine on Professor Hawking’s website if you are interested.

Although Professor Hawking has come to accept his synthetic voice, the vast majority of people are devastated by the prospect of losing their natural speaking voice and having to replace it with something so robotic. Being diagnosed with MND or another neuro-degenerative disease is devastating enough without the indignity of having to ‘speak’ with a voice that you don’t feel belongs to you. After all, as I have described in a previous post right here on this website, Your Voice is your Auditory Face.

This is where the Voicebank Project comes in. The aim is to create a database of natural male & female voices with a variety of regional accents which can be used in conjunction with recordings of the patient’s own voice and those of their close relatives so that  VOCA users can choose a voice for their communication aid that they are comfortable with and that they feel reflects their own identity. You may wonder why the patient’s own voice can’t simply be recorded and used in the VOCA. Well, the fact is that for many people, one of the first noticeable symptoms of a neurological condition is in fact changes to their speech. By the time they are diagnosed, the patient’s speech is often significantly affected which is why a degree is of voice reconstruction is usually necessary. Do be aware though that at this stage, Voicebank is a research project only and not a fully-fledged and widely available service. Hopefully it will become part of the standard service for all VOCA users before too long!

I’m interested! What do I do now?

If you are interested and are over 16, have no reading or speaking difficulties and are a first language speaker of English, email info@smart-mnd.org to find out how to donate your voice. In particular, the project is needing male speakers from all over Scotland and from the areas shown on the leaflet here:

Leaflet from Voicebank giving details of accents requiredRecordings take about one hour and are done either at the New Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh or via the mobile recording team (Scotland only). You will need to wear a set of headphones and a little microphone and you will be asked to read a selection of sentences from a computer screen. Don’t worry, the text is big and easy to read! I recommend bringing a bottle of water as you’ll get a dry throat from all that talking. Go! Donate your voice!

If you would like to find out more about Motor Neurone Disease, visit the UK’s MND Association.