Guilhem Gallart used to speak with a thick, southern French accent, his voice deep and slightly nasal, punctuated by a faint lisp.
Then, in 2015, he was diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosisor ALS, an incurable neurological disease that slowly paralyzed his muscles from head to toe, leaving him bedridden and forcing him to use voice synthesis computer software to speak.
Now, his family jokes with him that he sounds like a GPS device. His wife and two daughters, Mr. Gallart said, sometimes call his old cellphone number just to hear his voicemail greeting.
Losing his distinctive voice, he said, felt like surrendering an essential part of himself, because sound was his life’s passion. Better known as Pone, he is a music producer and beat maker who once belonged to one of France’s most popular old school rap groups, the Fonky family.
To recapture his signature vocal sound, Pone, 50, embarked on a slightly quixotic and still unfinished quest. Since there weren’t enough old recordings of his voice to feed a computer and create a synthetic replacement, he asked a comedian to record an imitation of what he used to sound like – and used that as a base instead.
“Voice is a very personal thing,” said Pone, propped up in bed at his home in Gaillac, a small town near Toulouse in southwestern France. The way you speak “speaks volumes about your character,” he added, immediately conveying so much of who you are. Even if, as he jokingly described his voice in a documentary about his lifehe “really sounded like an idiot.”
In 2020, he approached Marc-Antoine Le Bret, a 37-year-old comic known for celebrity impressions, asking for his help in creating a new voice to match his old one.
“The challenge was absolutely insane,” Mr. Le Bret recalled thinking. He had never met Pone, but immediately agreed. “It is the most beautiful challenge of my life.”
Mr. Le Bret immersed himself in old audio and video recordings of Pone, such as clips from a family vacation to Morocco. He also watched footage of Pone’s group.
Pone didn’t sing or rap in the Fonky Family, which sold hundreds of thousands of albums in the 1990s and 2000s with fiery raps about the hardscrabble streets of Marseille. But Mr. Le Bret listened for snippets of Pone’s voice in interviews, backstage at concerts and studio chatter in recording sessions.
M. Le Bret then worked on refining his impression. But it wasn’t easy.
Pone was born and raised in Toulouse, where he fell in love with rap as a teenager, before moving to Marseille. The two cities have slightly different but equally strong accents, with the silent “e” not always so silent. (The pronunciation of “Pone” varies from Paris to the south, but the “e” is silent in both places.)
Mr. Le Bret also had to capture Pone’s tone, and said he “tried to absorb” Pone’s way of expressing himself, without slipping into caricature. “He’s a brainiac, he loves irony, and that was important,” he said.
Getting the intonation right was essential for Wahiba Gallart, Pone’s wife, and the last person who could understand him before he switched to the impersonal, digitally generated voice.
“Sometimes he will tell us something and the tone of the computer is flat, cold,” she said. This makes him sound more abrupt than intended. “It was important for him to reclaim as much of his former self as possible, for our daughters,” she added.
After Mr. Le Bret felt that his impression was close enough, he voiced about 250 stock phrases in a recording studio, many of them nonsense phrases designed to provide the right balance of phonemes to feed a program designed by. CandyVoice, a digital voice processing and synthesis company.
Ms. Gallart attended the three-hour session, correcting and guiding Mr. Le Bret. Pone, and his family, could hardly wait for the results.
Family is Pone’s pillar. His parents and half-siblings often visit the home in Gaillac, where wedding and vacation shots hang not far from gold and platinum records celebrating hip-hop and R&B. successes he produced in his solo career after the Fonky Family broke up in 2007.
His daughters, Naïla, 15, and Jasmine, 12, often climb on his bed to chat, watch movies or play video games.
And last year, the daughters’ smiles grew as they gathered to listen to Pone use the new voice for the first time — a moment. captured by a national television news crew.
The results earned a mixed review.
The voice was synthetic but clearly southern, and very close to his original. Unfortunately it was also a carriage. Longer sentences were confused; syllables were occasionally dropped. Pone quickly saw the mistakes.
“I dealt with a sound engineer, an expert,” said Jean-Luc Crebouw, the founder of CandyVoice. He said that Pone got used to the neutral-sounding synth voice, which makes the kinks in the new one stand out even more.
But the experiment was successful enough that Pone said he wanted to continue, and he contacted other companies to tune the new voice.
“Using my real voice was a plus,” he said. “I was able to express myself again.”
New artificial intelligence and computer generated speech tools offer hope to patients with speech-impairing diseases, although these approaches usually require people to either continue to speak or have a large enough library of recordings of their voice.
Pone, who lost his voice before these technologies were available, needed the more creative solution of partnering with Mr. Le Bret. In recent weeks, he’s tried different AI tools, but the results have been “very disappointing,” he said, and for now, he’s back to his old synthetic voice.
When he wants to speak, an infrared sensor tracks his eyes as they move across a keyboard onto a screen, enabling him to write text, which is then read in a monotone. The process is slow. During an interview, minutes of silence between each answer were broken only by the rhythmic hissing of his artificial respirator and the occasional beep of his stomach feeding machine.
The challenge Pone has set himself to recapture his voice is not the only one he has taken on since he was diagnosed eight years ago with a disease whose average survival, according to the ALS Association, is two to five years.
Pone can no longer spend hours improvising with samples in the studio. But since his diagnosis, he started record label and, using his eyes to operate music software, he released several albums, including one based entirely on Kate Bush samples. He also produced a mix for the handover ceremony of the Paralympic Games, held in Tokyo in 2020 and planned for Paris in 2024.
Since the diagnosis, Pone said he has become a “better version” of himself, stripped of fleeting distractions and focused on the essentials.
ALS “left me with what mattered most,” he writes in his autobiography. “My mind and my heart.”
He converted to Islam in the mid-2000s, and he said his faith helped him find inner peace. “It’s all about acceptance,” he said. “And I accepted.”
He does long for the tangible pleasures of life, like walking on a sandy beach or hugging a loved one. And landing a punchline is hard when you have to type it with your eyes.
While the disease stole his speech and much more, he and his family said it only strengthened their bonds.
Jasmine is too young to remember what her father sounded like and said she was excited to hear a better version of his “new” voice. However, the current one grew on her. “When he’s joking or happy, I can almost feel the intonation change,” she said.
“It’s not really the voice of a robot anymore,” she added. “It’s my father.”