Why use text-to-speech?
There are lots of reasons to use text-to-speech (TTS) software. It can be enormously helpful for anyone who's visually impaired, or has a condition like dyslexia that makes reading on screens tricky. Text-to-speech can also help overcome language barriers for people who read a language but don't speak it, or are in the process of learning.
TTS is also ideal if you want to listen to a document while doing something else, if you find it easier to retain information you've heard, or if you want to sense-check something you've written.
In years gone by, TTS software was rather expensive, but these days there are excellent available free of charge. Of course, there are still plenty that you can pay for, but in many cases you should be able to get by with a program that doesn’t cost you a penny.
Here are the best free tools for reading text aloud – either individual paragraphs or whole documents.
Balabolka can read your documents in six voices, then save the audio with handy bookmarks
There are a couple of ways to use Balabolka: you can either copy and paste text into the program, or you can open a number of supported file formats (including DOC, PDF, and HTML) in the program directly. In terms of output you can use SAPI 4 complete with eight different voices to choose from, SAPI 5 with two, or the Microsoft Speech Platform if you download and install the necessary files.
Whichever route you go down, you can adjust the speech, pitch and volume of playback to create custom voice. In addition to reading aloud text, the program can also save narrations as audio files in a range of formats including .mp3 and .wav. For lengthy documents you can create bookmarks to make it easy to jump back to a specific location and there are excellent tools on hand to help you to customize the pronunciation of words to your liking. Balabolka is best free TTS software around.
Download here: Balabolka
A Microsoft Word extension that brings customizable TTS to your favorite word processor
Developed by the University of Edinburgh, WordTalk is a toolbar add-on for Word that brings customizable text-to-speech to Microsoft's word processor. It works with all versions of Word right up to the 2016 edition, and is accessible via the toolbar or ribbon – depending on which version you're using.
The toolbar itself is certainly not the most attractive you'll ever see, appearing to have been designed by a child. Nor are all of the buttons' functions very clear, but thankfully there is a help file on hand to help.
There's no getting away from the fact that WordTalk is fairly basic, but it does support SAPI 4 and 5 voices, and these can be tweaked to your liking. The ability to just read aloud individual words, sentences or paragraphs is a particularly nice touch. You also have the option of saving narrations, and there are a number of keyboard shortcuts that allow for quick and easy access to frequently used options.
Download here: WordTalk
3. Natural Reader
Novel text-to-speech software with built-in OCR and its own dedicated web browser
Natural Reader can be used in a couple of ways. The first option is to load documents into its library and have them read aloud from there. This is a neat way to manage multiple files, and the number of supported file types is impressive, including ebook formats. There's also OCR, which enables you to load up a photo or scan of text, and have it read to you.
The second option takes the form of a floating toolbar. In this mode, you can highlight text in any application and use the toolbar controls to start and customize text-to-speech – this means you can very easily use the feature in your web browser, word processor and a range of other programs. There's also a built-in browser to convert web content to speech more easily.
Download here: Natural Reader
4. Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader
Despite its basic looks, Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader has more to offer than you might first think. You can open numerous file formats directly in the program, or just copy and paste text.
Alternatively, as long as you have the program running and the relevant option enables, Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader can read aloud any text you copy to the clipboard – great if you want to convert web sites to speech – as well as dialog boxes that pop up Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader can also convert text files to WAV format.
Unfortunately the selection of voices is limited, and the only settings you can customize are volume and speed unless you burrow deep into settings to fiddle with pronunciations. Additional voices are available for a US$25 fee (about £20, AU$30), which seems rather steep.
Download here: Zabaware Text-to-Speech Reader
5. Panopretor Basic
Panopreter Basic lives up to its name, delivering text-to-speech conversion without frills. The list of supported file types is a little disappointing (no DOCX, for instance), as is the level of voice customization. Aside from choosing a language, volume and speed, there's nothing to adjust. When you compare this to the range of personalisation that can be achieved in other text-to-speech program, it's a little disappointing.
You do have the option of converting text to WAV format so you can listen to it when on the move, but it's a shame to find that MP3 isn't supported. The dual-pane layout of the program isn't particularly pleasant to work with either; it feels like there is a lot of space wasted unless you happen to be both listening to text-to-speech conversion there and then, and also converting to audio file. It gets the job done, but there are better tools out there.
Download here: Panopreter Basic