Video: Mac singing Still Alive

The weirdest thing happened yesterday. I was using Ayu, my as-yet-unnamed MacBook Pro, and suddenly Axis, my old PowerBook G4 booted and started singing Still Alive, the theme to the game Portal. I really should stop naming my Macs; I hear it makes them sentient.

Okay, that’s not really what happened. Actually, a couple of weekends ago, all three of the parties I had been invited to (yeah, I don’t understand how I got this social life either; just believe me) were cancelled or too difficult to get to, so I used my unexpected free time to do something I’d wanted to do for ages: get my Mac to sing Still Alive. You might remember that one weekend way back when I had an excuse to avoid being social, I wrote a parody of Still Alive, and a program to get my Mac to sing it using the TUNE input to the built-in speech synthesiser. Back then, I had to enter the notes and durations to sing one by one, and it was too tedious to do the whole song.

A couple of months later I bought a MIDI keyboard, wrote some more code so that I could enter the tune with that, and then hastily wrote a little song using it. I used this for a few other songs, including a duet of Axis and the newborn Ayu for the London Science Museum’s birthday. That was when they were still friends, obviously.

At some point, I discovered the wealth of Jonathan Coulton songs which Spektugalo, Silverbeam and Blindguard created for UltraStar Deluxe. Much later, when I got some free time, I added some more code to the program so that it could read UltraStar files, and tried it singing some Jonathan Coulton songs. It wasn’t that great, and I had trouble interpreting some parts of the files, so for a while I didn’t do much with it, but eventually I improved it a bit and made a ‘cyborg remix‘ of The Future Soon.

When I met Spektugalo in person before JoCo’s third London concert, I showed him some of what I’d done, and he gave me a Still Alive UltraStar file he’d found and polished up, which does not officially exist because, as a track commissioned by Valve for the game Portal, Still Alive is one of the few JoCo songs which is not licensed under Creative Commons. My app couldn’t read it straight away, which turned out to be because the line endings were not as expected. The weekend when my social life was cancelled, I fixed this, made a few other improvements, and finally the robot choir could back to its roots. I tidied the song up a bit in GarageBand after my Mac sang it, mostly to get the timing right, but also to fix a few weird sounds. The final recording uses the voice ‘Vicki’, which is a higher quality voice, although I found that the voice ‘Victoria’ sang with fewer weird sounds.

It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction with the result. Here’s an mp3 of it, which you can overlay with the Ellen McLain version from the Portal soundtrack if you have it. I won’t put it on my podcast, since the podcast-hosting service I use can only host Creative Commons or similarly-licensed files, and I doubt I can license a cover of a non-Creative-Commons song under such a license. I really don’t know much about the legal situation of this cover at all, but I do know that billions and billions of people have released videos showing all manner of weird objects being coaxed to play the song, and Valve hasn’t sued any of them yet. Valve worked with JoCo, so I presume they’re pretty sensible about this sort of thing.

Anyway, to make a long story finally end, I wanted to share it with more people, so I figured a video was in order, but a plain old video of a Mac singing is pretty boring. However, an interesting video of a Mac takes a long time to make, so I decided to recycle footage from various old videos, and add in any appropriate photos I had taken over the years. A couple of interesting things you might have trouble reading in the video are this early prediction of the possible startup date of the LHC and this old clipping about Steve Wozniak buying me a laptop. Thanks again, Liz and Woz.

Edit: Here you can find the text file with the TUNE commands, so you can get your own Mac to sing it.

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  1. #1 by Grace Bridges on March 30, 2010 - 1:18 am

    Heh. Great story. Great vid. Well done!


  2. #2 by Elizabeth on May 12, 2010 - 6:04 am

    Hiya; I hope you’ll forgive me the OT comment, but a little poking around didn’t turn up an email address. I’m the person who did the UI for Randall (of XKCD)’s color survey, and I was just reading the comments on his followup post about sex and gender in the results. You had posted this:

    “By the way, where did you get the more specific colour names shown in the instructions (e.g. ” ‘brown’ and ‘raw umber’ are both good answers”) and did you notice a bias toward these colour names? I know I named colours ‘light olive’ a few times, and that colour name might not have occurred to me if I had not seen it in the instructions.”

    As a matter of fact, we did think quite a bit about that, and I’m delighted that someone noticed!

    Randall wanted to give specific examples to demonstrate how people taking the survey could be more or less specific, but he didn’t want to prime people by showing everyone two color names before they started. So what we settled on is this: there are, if memory serves, six or seven pairs of colors that can be given as examples (“brown”/”raw umber” and “green”/”light olive” being two of the pairs). When the introductory survey is displayed, it selects one at random, and then stores an index which references which pair was used along with the other session data (the survey answers).

    I don’t actually know whether which color pair was selected influenced the later color choices–I haven’t run that test on the collected data. I suspect that, in practice, the variety was sufficient to mitigate the effects. You could find out if you wanted, though, by getting the SQL file from the blog and sorting it yourself. 🙂


  3. #3 by Lily on September 16, 2011 - 3:12 pm

    Hi, I love your work, and for an assignment am trying to get my mac to sing ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. Any hints on how?


    • #4 by Angela Brett on September 25, 2011 - 8:01 pm


      Sorry for not responding sooner… I didn’t have much internet access when you posted, and then I forgot about it. If there is plenty of time before the assignment is due, I might be able to modify the software to be good enough to release, and you could try using it. Otherwise, you could try using Repeat After Me, which is in Developer/Applications/Utilities/Speech if you have the developer tools installed. If you don’t have the developer tools installed, you can get them for free from You might need to register (for free) and log in before you can download them.


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