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SOUNDS ODD  by Elizabeth Holmes
Fun Facts on the Science of Sound
#14. Novel Uses For Voice Recognition Software

Am I the only one, or is voice over work making you more aware of the sounds around you?  

The work we do requires us to notice every auditory detail. And, for many of us, this noticing has become a habit outside of the studio as well. 

Whether I’m in an urban environment or a rural one, I find myself noticing things that I used to tune out as a matter of course.  


For example, a few months ago, I stayed overnight at Yosemite National Park. The ranger lecture at that time was "Sounds of Yosemite,” which is where I learned about a fascinating owl study that Park biologists are conducting using voice recognition software.  

Yosemite is home to a rare breed of Great Gray Owl that was separated from its nearest relatives (Canadian Grey Owls) 30,000 years ago.

To date, efforts to save this dwindling population of birds has involved capturing, banding and observing them at close range. These techniques are both intrusive and counter-productive, because they often disrupt the owls’ mating cycles, putting them at even greater peril.  


Fortunately last summer, Joe Medley, a PhD candidate in ecology at UC Davis, found a better way to study the birds. 

He placed 40 data-compression digital audio recorders in their habitat, then perfected voice recognition software that allowed scientists to identify individual "voices.”  

The amount of data that they gathered was staggering - nearly 50 terabytes of sound! Without a way to sift through that soundscape of airplane engine noise, frog song, coyotes barking and bears rummaging (not to mention critters chomping on the expensive equipment), it would have taken seven years for researchers to sort those sounds by ear.  

Medley modified existing voice recognition software with algorithms that searched for the specific frequency and time intervals of the Great Gray Owls’ low hoot. 

The program is so sophisticated that it can tell the difference between males, females and younger birds, as wells as distinguish the cry of nesting females calling for food.  These details help scientists improve the Great Gray Owls’ chances of survival.  


As it happened, a few weeks after that vacation, my niece introduced me to yet another variation on "speech recognition” software when she visited my home for a family celebration. 

We hosted my dad at that event as well, who (at 94 years old) still enjoys the music of his youth – Big Band era jazz.   

The surprise for me was that my niece (who is 60 years younger) liked the music, too. And she captured those tunes out of thin air with Shazam, an app on her iPhone that told her instantly who was playing and the name of the song.   


It got me to thinking: Is it just a matter of time before voice seekers have similar software that identifies each of us individually as voice actors? 

It’s already being done with facial characteristics. Why not voices?  Something to think about when it comes to our own contributions to the soundscapes around us.      

This article was adapted from Great Gray Owls of Yosemite Studied Through Use of Digital Audio Recording Software, by Tracie Cone (Associated Press). 

Elizabeth Holmes is a writer, voice actor, and staff editor at VoiceOverXtra, based in Northern California. She is also editor of VoiceOverXtra's book division, including Voice Over Legal, by voice actor / attorney Robert Sciglimpaglia.


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Comments (4)
Susan Manhire
6/19/2013 at 8:30 AM
Hi, Elizabeth. I really enjoyed your article on voice recognition. As an animal lover, it was great to learn how much care was taken in the owl research, and it appears the voice recognition software made all the difference. It will be interesting to observe the progression of voice recognition software in our industry. Keep us informed. Thanks!
Roxanne Coyne
6/18/2013 at 4:27 PM
This is amazing, Elizabeth! Thank you for sharing this ingenious use of voice recognition technology. What an interesting article!!
6/18/2013 at 4:15 PM
Fun article, Elizabeth! And great musings about how it all may affect voice actor casting! Imagine: A client gets a synthesized voice "sound" that they like. Then they send it to a voice-hosting place (, etc) who simply uses VRT to match the synthesized sound desired with existing demo sounds...presto! A match! And no need to bother the voice actor! Just steal the demo-sound and re-produce it with a synthesizer machine. That's pretty scary! Just sayin'...hey, you know, soon we'll probably put a man on the moon! =)
Marie Hoffman
6/18/2013 at 4:00 PM
I always learn so much from Elizabeth's columns. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your words of wisdom, and thanks,
John Florian, for publishing her articles.

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