Thursday, February 2, 2017

Talk Is Cheap

Talk Is Cheap Ad
ANTIC Magazine
October 1982

This Talk Is Cheap ad for S.A.M. (The Software Automatic Mouth), with the colorful S.A.M. character designed by Gunnar Kullenberg, appeared on page 55 in the Vol. 1, No. 4 issue of Antic magazine in October 1982. There is also another, less colorful S.A.M. ad on page 56 in the Vol. 1, No. 3 issue of Antic magazine in August 1982.

S.A.M., written by Mark Barton and published by Don't Ask Computer Software was a software-only, diskette-based speech synthesizer for the ATARI 8-bit home computers. It was also available for the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and other home computers of the era. As mentioned, S.A.M. was software based and it output speech directly to the TV or monitor speaker. For the ATARI 8-bit version, no additional hardware, speaker, amplifier, power supply, special interfaces or cables were needed.

S.A.M.'s best selling point was its Talk Is Cheap $59.95 (1982 dollars) price tag compared to hardware-based speech synthesizers which could cost in the hundreds of dollars.

The major drawback of the ATARI 8-bit version of S.A.M. was, however, that by default, it turned off the ATARI's ANTIC chip during speech output blanking the screen in the process. It can be configured to leave the ATARI's ANTIC chip on during speech output, but this severely degraded the already marginal speech quality.

There is a review of the S.A.M. speech synthesizer starting on page 50 of Vol. 1, No 4 of Antic magazine in October 1982.

There is another review of S.A.M. by John Scheurer on page 8 of the November/December 1982 issue, Vol. 1, No. 4, of Ad Astra - The Journal of the Atari Microcomputer Net Amateur Radio Operator Users' Group. In the review, Scheurer states: "... I am quite pleased with the package and recommend it to anyone who wishes to experiment with voice-synthesis at minimal cost ..."

Beginning on page 56 of the August 1984 issue of Family Computing magazine, there is an article by Louis R. Wallace titled "Buyer's Guide To Speech Synthesizers - Turn Your Computer Into A Talking Machine" that covers S.A.M. as well. Family Computing was a computer magazine published by Scholastic, Inc. It covered all of the major U.S. home computer platforms of the day. The first issue of the magazine appeared in September 1983. The final issue was published in April 2001.

While the output of S.A.M. (and other ATARI 8-bit speech synthesizers) would never have been mistaken for a human voice and the verbal quality is understandable at best, it was a fun and interesting addition to anyone’s home computer setup as shown in the 1983 movie Wargames (though Wargames is not using speech synthesizer technology but rather actor John Wood's recorded voice as the voice of Joshua/WOPR).

Jerry White's PokerSAM

A few other programs that made use of Don't Ask Computer Software's S.A.M. speech technology are PokerSAM and Chatterbee by prolific ATARI software developer Jerry White. Kevin Savetz, ATARI Archivist Extraordinaire, and co-host of the outstanding ANTIC The ATARI 8-bit Podcast interviewed Jerry White in January 2016.

A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing
Issue #13. Page 37.

From Moby Games: "Chatterbee is an educational game that teaches spelling. It uses the speech synthesizer Software Automatic Mouth (SAM) to read out word and sentences. The program will read a word, then define it in a sentence before reading it out again. The player's task is simply to type the word and as the letters appear on the screen the synthesizer will repeat them. Spelling a word correctly leads to points being awarded and if wrong the player gets two more chances. The game consists of ten rounds each with either five or ten words. There are 25 levels and the player can start on any of them. If the player does well the level will automatically change to a higher one."

Chatterbee Ad
January 1984
Page 9

Chatterbee is interesting in that while S.A.M. blanks the screen as usual, the bee character is still visible during the screen blank. Nice trick Jerry! He explains it in this article. There is an ad for Chatterbee in the January 1984 issue of Antic on page 9.

Jerry White and Randy Simon

There is a type-in BASIC program title Spelling.SAM by Ed Rybczyk starting on page 13 of issue #22 of the September 1984 issue of ANALOG COMPUTING magazine that used the S.A.M. speech technology.

The February 1985 issue of Antic magazine has a BASIC/Assembly Language article beginning on page 63 title S.A.M. Handler - Less typing for your ATARI's voice, which shows you how to set up S.A.M. to work using the BASIC OPEN command. Note that the assembly language listing has an error which is addressed in the Help! section of the June 1985 issue of Antic.

Another type-in BASIC program title Speech Editor - Menu-driven S.A.M. talk! by Mark Giambruno appears in the April 1985 issue of Antic magazine beginning on page 45. This program allows you to edit S.A.M. speech using a menus.

In 1983, Educational Software, Inc., also known as Santa Cruz Educational Software, released Tricky Tutorial #12, The SAM Tutorial.

I still have my original ATARI S.A.M. floppy diskette, which I purchased back in the day at The Program Store, a platform agnostic software retailer at the Monmouth Mall in nearby Eatontown, NJ, but unfortunately, the instruction manual and the box are nowhere to be found.

S.A.M. Atari Diskette

What to try experimenting with S.A.M.? Some interesting projects with S.A.M. could be to add a computerized voice to Mike Mayfield's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trek or Dave Kaufman's text-based BASIC computer game Star Trader. Star Trader appeared in the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It was one of the original space-trader themed computer games. This classic book really should be archived online somewhere. [2017-03-01 And now it is, here.]

If you want to hear S.A.M. sing, check out My Name is Sam by Timotheous Groove!

For more information on the various hardware-based speech synthesizers available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers, see section 6.7 (and 6.8) of the ATARI 8-bit FAQ maintained by Michael Current. S.A.M. is not included in the ATARI 8-bit FAQ as it is a software-based, not hardware-based speech synthesizer.

I also recently wrote a blog post on the hardware-based Voice Box speech synthesizer by The Alien Group.

The June 1982 issue of ANTIC, Vol. 1, No. 2, has a review of two additional hardware-based voice synthesizers for the ATARI 8-bit home computers beginning on page 18.

If your planning on attending the Vintage Computer Festival East XII in Wall, New Jersey during the weekend of March 31st though April 2nd, 2017, come and see my ATARI Says Its First Words exhibit where I'll be displaying a sample of the various speech synthesizers that were available for the ATARI 8-bit home computers.

2020-06-01 Update

On June 1st, 2020, Kay Savetz posted an interview (ANTIC Interview 385 - Software Automatic Mouth: Mark Barton) he conducted with S.A.M. creator Mark Barton. Give it a listen!

2020-12-23 Update

S.A.M. functionality has been incorporated into the Fujinet project.


  1. SAM has since been reverse engineered, and re-implemented in C. Courtesy of Sebastian Macke:


  2. Thanks for sharing the additional info Thom!

  3. "My Name is Sam" is by Timotheous Groove. Thanks for the mention!

  4. Do we know who the artist was who made the character design for SAM?

    1. Oh! this site says the artist is Gunnar Kullenberg. Mystery solved!

    2. Updated artist info in the first paragraph. Thanks.