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We all remember how robotic the early text to speech tools used to sound, and how hilarious a computer with a potty mouth can be… But is this still the case? Is text to speech technology ready for the world of digital content creation? Let’s find out!

The more formats you can use to deliver your online lessons, the more accessible they’ll be, and the better your students will learn… Turning text into speech for an audio lesson, a voiceover, or a video is a great way to repurpose text-heavy content for new formats.

But not everyone is born with the dulcet tones of, say, Morgan Freeman. Plus, converting text into natural speech the old way can eat up hours better spent developing or marketing your course.

That’s where the latest generation of text to speech (TTS) tools come in handy. And with technology advancements, they’re sounding less and less like robots–and more like natural human readers.

Along with many other practical use cases, text to speech can help you:

  • turn whole books into audiobooks
  • turn a text lesson into an audio or video lesson
  • turn articles from your blog into videos on youtube

We’ve reviewed the best text to speech software you can use in 2021 to repurpose content and increase student engagement:

But first—why bother?

Why use text to speech?

There’s a variety of circumstances where TTS can help keep students engaged and learning. For instance:

  • Recorded presentations let you create the experience of attending a lecture
  • Audio versions of course texts make it easier to access course material for students who are visually impaired or struggle with reading comprehension
  • Audiobook versions of self-published eBooks open up a new revenue stream—people who would never read a 300-page book about your subject might be willing to buy something they could listen to on the drive to work
  • Video adds flavor to your course, giving your students a break from course materials and quizzes
  • Repurposing blog content by turning articles into a narration that you can use in voiceovers, and videos
  • Accessibility for the visually impaired – text to speech is a great way to accommodate those who can hear better than they can see

In all these instances, TTS saves you the time it would take to record an audio track in person. In fact, once you’ve got a TTS tool set up the way you want it, your only major time investment is writing the material.

Standard TTS vs. Neural TTS

Before diving into the world of text to speech, it’s important to know the difference between standard and neural TTS tools.

  • Standard TTS is the older approach. When you think of artificial, stiff sounding TTS, you’re thinking of this. But standard TTS has the benefit of being cheaper than neural TTS. Plus, a lot of the software available today lets you make adjustments to standard output, so you can change the length of pauses, the speed of speech, and how words are pronounced.
  • Neural TTS draws on neural network technology, or AI, to generate more natural-sounding speech. In essence, a computer program is fed thousands of hours of human speech, accompanied by text, and learns how to imitate a human reading something aloud. Don’t let that creep you out, though. Even if it’s more expensive than standard TTS, neural TTS can create some truly lifelike—and listenable—audio.

To date, the only way to get free neural TTS services is to sign up for a trial for a paid service.

A summary of the best text to speech tools we reviewed:

TTS toolThe GoodThe BadBest for…
Amazon PollyFull-featured, with standard and neural TTS support at the best price point compared to competitorsAggregated reviews suggest Google Text-to-Speech offers better user supportCourse creators who are ready to pay for TTS with neural capabilities
Google Text-to-SpeechReportedly offers better user support than Amazon Polly, along with more voices and languagesSlightly more expensive than Amazon PollyCourse creators who are ready to pay for TTS and value user support
Azure Speech ServicesAzure also offers greater voice customizability than either Google or AmazonMore expensive than either Google or Amazon (neural TTS is twice the price)Course creators who want to create audio content with a one-of-a-kind voice
Natural ReaderStraightforward, no frills text-to-speech software with flexible pricing No support for neural TTS, and the available voices are already widely used by YouTube creatorsCourse creators with a large amount of text to process looking for a cheaper option than Amazon, Google, or Azure
VoiceOverMakerCreate and edit neural TTS audio and video together in an online editorConsiderably more expensive than other neural TTS offeringsThose just beginning to experiment with video lessons 
BalabolkaFree, straightforward text-to-speech software with the option to add voices from other sourcesBasic functionality and no online community for support. Only works on Windows.Quick-and-dirty TTS that works out of the box
Zabaware Text-to-SpeechFree. Similar capabilities to Balabolka, plus an extensive online community in the Zabaware forumsBasic functionality. Only works on Windows.Course creators looking for basic standard TTS, with support from an online community
FreeTTSFree, simple in-browser TTS with  a higher character limit than competitors, and the option to sample voices before downloading files.The character limit confining for anything longer than a short blog post.On-the-fly TTS for short pieces of text.

Amazon Polly

The best all-round cloud-based TTS service for educators

Pricing Options

  • Freemium
    • Standard TTS: Up to 5 million characters per month for 12 months
    • Neural TTS: Up to 1 million characters per month for 12 months
  • Pay-as-you-go
    • Standard TTS: $4.00 per 5 million characters
    • Neural TTS: $16.00 per 1 million characters

Reasons to buy

  • Ability to stream converted speech audio on the go, without downloading files
  • Selection of 47 voices across 24 languages
  • Speech Marks work as an extra learning tool

Details

Consistently ranked by users as the best option for TTS, Amazon Polly offers both standard and neural services. Since it’s pay-as-you-go, there’s no need to worry about subscription fees draining your bank account during the months when you aren’t in course production mode. Polly offers one stand-out feature for online teaching: Speech Marks, which allow you to match streaming audio with text so students can follow along. Aggregated reviews show that, while Polly is the top choice overall, users had a better support experience when using Google Text-to-Speech.

Try Amazon Polly


Google Text-to-Speech

An Amazon Polly alternative with more voices and languages to choose from.

Pricing Options

  • Google Cloud Free tier: Limited use of the product (unspecified by Google)
  • Pay-as-you-go
    • Standard TTS: $4.00 per 4 million characters
    • Neural TTS: $16.00 per 1 million characters

Reasons to buy

  • More than 200 voices in over 40 languages and language variants
  • Neural TTS quality uses WaveNet technology—comparable to Amazon Polly
  • Custom voice (beta) may give you the opportunity to create a voice unique to your course using neural technology

Details

As a close competitor to Amazon Polly, Google Text-to-Speech offers most of the same features, at a slightly higher price point for standard TTS. If it’s important to you that the voice of your TTS service stands out from the pack, Google’s service may be your best choice: Not only does it offer more already-created voices than Polly, but Google’s new custom voice service gives you the option to build a vocal identity unique to your course using neural technology. That being said, custom voice is still in beta, and you may need to wait a while before it’s a convenient option. Aggregated reviews suggest Google Text-to-Speech offers better support than Amazon Polly.

Try Google Text-to-Speech


Azure Speech Services

The best way to create a unique TTS voice for your course.

Pricing Options

  • Freemium:
    • Standard TTS: Up to 5 million characters per month
    • Neural TTS: Up to 0.5 million characters per month
    • Custom TTS: Up to 5 million characters per month
  • Pay-as-you-go
    • Standard TTS: $4.00 per 1 million characters
    • Neural TTS: $16.00 per 1 million characters
    • Custom TTS: $6.00 per 1 million characters

Reasons to buy

  • Best choice for custom TTS voices
  • Fine-grained controls let you tweak your custom voice
  • Support for speaking styles like chat, newscast, and customer service, as well as emotions

Details

Microsoft’s Azure Speech Services is pricier than either Amazon Polly or Google Text-to-Speech, particularly if you’re relying on standard TTS rather than neural. Where it outsells the competition is customizability: With a wealth of tools at your disposal, and the ability to choose between emotions and speaking styles, you can handcraft the perfect voice for your online course. That’s good news if you’re worried about your content blending into the background—after all, there are only so many artificial voices out there, and a lot of YouTube creators using TTS. Also, Azure is developing customized neural voices—similar or identical to those offered in Google’s beta—and while they aren’t necessarily a practical choice at the moment, it means you’ll get even more customizability in the future.

Try Azure Speech Services


Natural Reader

The best stripped-down TTS service for course creators who want a simple solution

Pricing Options

  • Free trial: 20 minutes of voice per day
  • Online app: Starting at $9.99/month, plus $49/month for commercial use
  • Software: One-time payment starting at $99.50, plus commercial use fees

Reasons to Buy

  • Over 100 voices in the paid version
  • Works on mobile, for editing on the go
  • Supports many text formats, and includes OCR scanning

Details

With a simple interface and pricing packages free of API frills, Natural Reader is the natural choice for narrating videos or offering students the option to listen to texts. While the standard TTS service may sound stilted compared to more expensive neural options, a built in pronunciation editor lets you teach the program tricky words. Multiple use options—online in the cloud, or as native software—give you flexible pricing. Keep in mind, though, that commercial use will take a bigger bite out of your budget. Finally, there’s one drawback to be aware of: Natural Voice is popular with YouTube creators, so you run the risk of using a voice already too-familiar to users.

Try Natural Reader


VoiceOverMaker

For course creators making their first foray into voiceover videos.

Pricing Options

  • Free trial: Up to 800 characters per month
  • Subscription: Starting at 7€ (about $8.50 USD)/month for 40,000 characters

Reasons to buy

  • Integrate online video editing with TTS—no need for extra apps
  • Take advantage of neural TTS using Google’s WaveNet technology
  • Commercial usage rights included with standard subscription 

Details

If you’re just getting started with video, and you’re not comfortable doing your own voiceovers, VoiceOverMaker may be your best option short of hiring a voice actor. The service uses Google’s neural WaveNet technology to create natural sounding voices, and gives you a single, cloud-based app to edit your voice track and videos together (there’s no non-neural TTS service available.) Plus, there’s no need to pay extra for commercial use, as with Natural Reader. It all adds up to a pretty tidy package; however, once you really ramp up video production, VoiceOverMaker starts digging into your wallet: 300,000 characters per month costs more than $30 USD (compared to 1 million for $16 from either Google or Amazon). At that point, it may be time to take a video editing course and do it yourself. But for beginners, VoiceOverApp is a great way to experiment and learn the ropes.

Try VoiceOverMaker


The best free text to speech apps

Balabolka

A utilitarian option for creating audiobooks.

Reasons to download

  • Simple, reliable text to speech software
  • Accepts a wide variety of text formats
  • Lets you use aftermarket voices

Details

Don’t let Balabolka’s rudimentary web design put you off. It’s a powerful free tool that consistently gets five star reviews from users and TTS connoisseurs. Once you download it, Balabolka uses the native Microsoft API to convert text files to speech. Beyond that, it works with any standard voice file you download to your computer. Editing tools let you adjust pronunciation and pauses between words. If you want to offer an audio version of course texts or ebooks to your students, you could do worse than Balabolka. 

Try Balabolka


Zabaware Text-to-Speech 

Simple TTS software with a huge online support community.

Reasons to download

  • Straightforward interface
  • Support from a large community of users
  • Export audio as WAV or MP3

Details

On the surface, Zabaware’s free Text-to-Speech tool may look dated. But it’s still supported by Zabaware, as well as a large, active forum of Zabaware users and developers. That’s what sets it apart from Balabolka, the other tool in our “humble but powerful” category. And like Balabolka, Zabaware Text-to-Speech is about as utilitarian as it gets, accepting a variety of file types and spitting out WAV or MP3 recordings. This free version ships with a limited selection of voices some reviewers have referred to as “low quality.” But you have the option of pointing the program to your Windows API, and using the voices your operating system shipped with. 

Try Zabaware Text-to-Speech


FreeTTS

Your best option for free, online TTS.

Reasons to use

  • Higher character limit than competitors
  • Downloadable audio files
  • Speech Synthesis Markup Language (SSMS) support

Details

The internet is littered with free text to speech tools, but FreeTTS stands out for a few reasons. First, it converts up to 6,000 per week for free. That’s more than other tools on the market. (For $6, you get 1,000,000 for 24 hours.) Second, they offer voice samples—so you can hear what to expect without downloading any files. FreeTTS also supports SSMS, a standard in TTS, which you can use to customize how the program interprets and speaks your test. And, just to be fair, FreeTTS offers a list of alternative free TTS you can use if you don’t like what they have to offer. 

Try FreeTTS


Once you’ve found your ideal voice and started converting text to speech, there’s no going back. Make sure to take some time experimenting with different options. Neural TTS may sound attractive at first, but standard TTS can be effective if you put in the time to customize it.