The Register meets the voice of Siri Down Under

Karen Jacobsen had no idea what she was getting into when she applied for a very odd job in 2002

Interview In 2002 Australian singer-songwriter Karen Jacobsen was living in New York City when she was offered the chance to audition for a job that required a voiceover artist with a native Australian accent, resident in the north-east of the USA, to record a voice model that would be used for … nobody quite knew what.

“I read the brief and thought: ‘This a description of me’,” Jacobsen told The Register. So she auditioned and got the gig, but wasn’t told how it would be used other than that her work would be “licensed to other companies.”

The job involved more than 50 hours of recording sessions, none longer than four hours each to keep her voice from failing. She was told to remain “calm and consistent,” and spoke myriad phrases, counted from one to one thousand, and performed many variations of: “At the next intersection, turn left: You have reached your destination.”

Some of the work involved speaking words so they could be digitally assembled into phrases. On other occasions she was asked to repeat the word “approximately” many times, both alone and in phrases such as “in approximately ten metres.”

Jacobsen told us she said the word "'approximately' approximately 168 times.”

“They wanted to capture every combination of syllables possible," she said. "I did it over and over. It made me a little batty.”

But eventually the job was done. Jacobsen walked away and thought little of it.

A couple of years later, a friend called to say she had bought her husband a GPS unit for their car, and on a whim they’d set it to a female Australian voice as they drove home after Christmas.

“She called and said ‘You’re in my car’,” Jacobsen told The Register.

And that was how Jacobsen discovered how her voiceover sessions had been used.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I did not expect it.”

Karen Jacobsen, the voice of Australian Siri

Karen Jacobsen, the voice of Australian Siri ... Click to enlarge

Years later, Apple licensed her sessions for the Australian version of Siri. Jacobsen heard herself in an iPhone for the first time on a train.

“My husband and I were going to a Halloween party and somebody was playing with her iPhone,” she said. Siri spoke and Jacobsen recognized herself.

She remains astounded that her voice has been heard by so many.

“Whose voice ends up in billions of devices telling people where to go?” she asks.

The Register asked whether the gig has proven lucrative, and if Jacobsen is paid each time her sessions are licensed.

She responded by dropping into a crisp, formal voice and stating: “I’m sorry, I am not authorized to answer that question.”

She adopts that voice when asked by people she meets who learn of her presence in their devices, because they get a kick out of hearing it and because Jacobsen thinks some crave a human connection to the machines they use.

Whatever she was paid, the gig therefore brought riches of other sorts because when she is recognized, people want to share stories of their GPS-assisted travels, and the names they chose for their navigation aids.

Not all are kind: some feel the need to tell tales of occasions on which their machines led them astray.

“I make a lot of apologies,” she told The Register.

Jacobsen continues to do voiceover work, when asked, and is a singer of note.

She’s also created a stage show and album titled Misogyny Opus, celebrating the famous speech by former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

When The Register met Jacobsen last month, she was at work on her 13th album.

Jacobsen's music has a following but knows that that long-ago voiceover session will forever be her definitive work – and doesn’t mind that.

“I don’t think it is random I happened to win that job,” she told The Register. “I am somebody who is really committed personal and professional development and creating a life that I live and finding ways to live in possibility. And I like to think that my voice carries some of that quality in all of the systems that I’m in.” ®

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