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One of my favorite Portuguese columnists has this weird thing about his column. Maybe it's more common than I thought. For every piece he publishes, he also publishes a podcast version along with it.

Now, either Publico has 27th century text-to-speech (TTS) technology, or he's actually reading them. I don't have a problem with that, but I'm pretty sure we could automate that part of the process with today's tech.

And yeah, I've heard all the rage about voice cloning services like ElevenLabs. But if you've been following this blog for a while, you probably guessed that we're not just gonna use an API. We're probably gonna build one from scratch.

An engine

The premise did not appear simple to build, but was easy to understand. Something that transcribes every new article of this blog using my own voice. It needs to be cheap, seamless, and most importantly, not get in the way. Writing is enough work as is.

The result is podcaster. It runs 100% on GitHub Actions, it scans every new blog post in my RSS feed and uses XTTS-v2 to transcribe it. The only thing it needs from me is a 1-min audio file. I tried Bark and a couple of other models, but this was the only one that made Vittoria come into the room when I was testing things around.

It's not that I hate infrastructure, I just wanted the whole thing to run on CI. All these TTS models are slow when running on the CPU. But instead of embarking on another painful journey through the world of GPU computing, I found Modal. I'm happy to report that I've regained faith in the future of serverless GPUs:

# define the image
stub = modal.Stub("modal-app", image=MODAL_IMAGE)

# create the function
def transcribe(
    article: ParsedArticle,
    voice_file: str = VOICE_FILE,
    model_name: str = MODEL_NAME,
    language: str = LANGUAGE,
) -> bytes:
    # this part is executed in a GPU powered machine
    # ...

The engine stores all transcripts in S3, automatically generates a podcast feed from them (using feedgen), and uses web hooks to trigger a new build of this blog. Again, pretty much for free. If you're curious or interested in taking it for a spin, should be straightforward to get started.

Integrating with Pelican

As I said before: I really don't like adding friction to my writing. It's already hard as is! The challenge then was to figure a way of automagically updating the blog with available transcripts after I publish, without me having to do anything at all.

Fortunately, Justin besides being great company at PyCon Italia every year, has also built a pretty robust plugin system for Pelican. All I had to do, was to add a podcaster plugin to this website. The plugin automatically matches articles to corresponding episodes, and adds that short html snippet you're seeing above. Should be build once and let run. Hopefully at least.

Final thoughts

I had a lot of fun building this, and also learned a lot. First, it demystified the whole podcast hosting thing for me. Turns out, it's just a bunch of mp3 files in a bucket with a rss feed.

Often I've settled for running ML models on CPU just because deploying with a GPU was much more of a pain, and didn't add any happiness to the process. At least for now, GPUs are here to stay, hopefully so are services like Modal. Pythonic, easy to use, and easy to isolate from the rest of the code base.

Finally, I was very impressed with the state of TTS and voice cloning technology. Is it perfect? No. Does it have some artifacts? Yes. Does it sound like a robot sometimes? Sure. But remember, I only gave it a minute of my voice.

Open source never ceases to amaze me.

December 8, 2023
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