Allison Smith

Prompts That Haunt Me

I usually do things in a largely regret-free manner. I’ve gotten pretty expert at sizing up a potential voice project and assessing what its impact might be further down the road. There are distinct lines I won’t cross: gratuitous profanity, overdone eroticism, or overt racism. These give me pretty clear signals that I should probably respectfully recuse myself  and urge the client to move along and find other talent to voice for them.

Other things I’ve voiced—seemingly harmless and non-noteworthy at the time—have a way of surfacing and never leaving me alone. The “haunting” by these prompts, which become almost like tag lines that people take great glee in quoting to me, are most times amusing. At other times, they make me wish I’d never uttered them.

Take the harmless number sequences I’ve voiced for countless telephone systems. These are the numbers 1-100 (or more) needed to flow and concatenate into billing platforms, numerical sequences, etc. At the very first Astricon in Atlanta, an Asterisk enthusiast approached me and asked: “You know those numbers you voiced for Asterisk?”

I blinked. “Yep! I know them well,” I quipped.

“So, for the number 0,” he continued, “you said ‘Zero’, but you also said ‘OH’, right?”

Again, Yep: Systems typically need me to say both to cover the option for: “Press One-OH-One for Accounting..”, that kind of thing.

“Well,” he continued, as his eyes lit up and he started to get quite animated: “I saved that ‘OH’ sound and I loop it so it just plays over and over…..’OHOHOHOHOHOHOH..!”

I faked a nosebleed to get out of there.

One of the most inventive uses for Asterisk was when a noted Asterisk wonk got the ever-popular Rhoomba vacuum robot to operate on Asterisk code commands, which he demonstrated at a couple of IT trade shows before really amazing the crowds at Astricon with it. He took it even further and arranged for me to record some custom prompts specifically for that application, prompts that were audible from the vacuum unit itself.

I knew when I recorded them that the prompts that said: “START SUCKING!” and “STOP SUCKING!” were going to be absolutely no good for my career. But they were so fun! And they went over in a huge way when the mastermind of the project set the Rhoomba down on the floor during his lecture at Astricon and delighted the crowd as it zipped down the center aisle with me—the voice of their Asterisk systems that they recognize so well—barking: “START SUCKING NOW!”

Of course, not a convention goes by without someone walking past me and whispering “Start Sucking!” It even came up in an email from a client whose company name I was having a hard time intoning properly. He joked: “Stop sucking and say it correctly!”

I still have images of the remote-controlled Rhoomba following me at my heels across the hotel lobby, me practically tripping over it, with a never-ending chorus of “me” chirping: “START SUCKING!”

I was also hired to voice a demo for an interactive pizza ordering system. I never realized until after I was well into voicing the various options for pizza sizes that there were quite so many adjectives to describe large.

“OK. You have selected two LARGE, HUMONGOUS, MASSIVE, THE GARGANTUA!, ENORMO-GIGANTICO, TOO MUCH FOR ME!, RELEASE THE KRAKEN! pizzas!”

On their own, and used in an innocent pizza ordering application, none of these would raise an eyebrow. Taken out of context, hijacked, copied, and then used on their own, they could be dangerous. I always have to think about these sound fragments and how they can be lifted out of their intended milieu and used for evil. Well, if not for evil at least for too much amusement. (Remember on “The Simpsons,” where Smithers’ computer revealed an image of Mr. Burns uttering a pastiche of sound fragments—surreptitiously gathered and “Smithered” together—that sounded jumpy and fragmented, but unmistakable: “Hello, Smithers…you’re…quite…good…at…turning…me…on!” )

I have to always be mindful that once the prompts leave my studio, they’re open for manipulation and altering, and that even seemingly innocent things I’ve voiced can create far-reaching ripples that can follow me forever.

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 Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk Open-Source PBX. Her Web site is www.theivrvoice.com.