He’s a vocalist who has created one of the largest and most ambitious single pieces of rock music ever recorded.
His projects break all the rules and are consistently off the map.
In an exclusive interview with VoiceCouncil Magazine, Judge Smith shares his definition of Vocal Success.
How should vocalists deal with the pressure of conforming to the industry?
There is certainly a lot of pressure to conform today. Rock or pop music has been around for a long while now; it can even be studied as an academic discipline. When that happens to a subject, you get stuck with norms and standards that you feel obliged to follow. But you have to remember that I am so old (!) that this was not the case when I was developing my music. Rock ‘n’ roll was wild and woolly and you were off the map no matter what you did. Of course there were pressures – In the 70’s you might feel you just had to be a glam rock star, but it wasn’t as institutionalized as it is now.
We’ve talked about how to overcome the limitations from a lack of money and fame – but how does one deal with their own musical or vocal limitations?
I don’t have a very good voice – its rather thin and hard, so I play to my strengths, and my selling point is that you can hear every word. If you sing like somebody else you are always going to be classed as an imitator even though you are maybe doing really different and original music. Remember: it is as important to be original as it is to sound good.
At this point, we just have to ask a couple of audio questions. What’s your favourite recording vocal mic?
For some years I had the use of an old RAC ribbon mic, a real Elvis Presley job, but sadly the owner needed it back so I bought a Audio-Technica 4033a which I’ve been very happy with; it has a nice rounded sound that’s right for my rather thin and edgy voice, and it’s also a good general purpose instrument mic.
Was your voice just dry in the mix, or what were the effects you used on it?
Rather than try to do everything myself in my home studio, I always mix my things somewhere else with another mix engineer. Mixing is a Black Art and you need a wizard, and someone who can be dispassionate about your masterpiece. So I don’t put effects as such on my vocals, however I do a great deal of pre-mix editing on my vocal tracks, so easy these days with DAWs, and I also have no problem at all with using pitch correction to prepare a final vocal track. You have to learn how to use your pitch correction gear properly, and you have to use it discretely, and only where it’s needed, but it can make all the difference. Done right, no one will be able to tell, and in tune is so much better than out of tune.
At the end of the day, are you completely satisfied that you have followed your own path?
There was a time when I would have liked to be better known – certainly! But I’ve got my freedom, I can do what I like and the people who like my music are expecting me to do the unexpected – in ‘Orfeas’, my latest project, I use a variety of genres: Death Metal, Stadium Rock, flamenco guitar and string quartet! Who else gets away with that?
Have you gone from being a struggling young musician to a struggling old musician?
I would actually say that I am an ancient, struggling musician! But I have learnt that if you go with what will make money, it will break your heart and you will end up empty. However, if you do the project you want to do, you may make money – certainly – one cannot rule that out. But even if you don’t, you will have the satisfaction of having followed your own path, a path no one else could discover.
Have you really made your peace with your vocal/producing career?
I’m not ego free! I love it when someone buys my albums! But I’m certainly more peaceful now than I have been in the past – I still keep asking myself – why am I doing this music? And the answer still comes loud and clear: “because I want to hear it!” That’s a way better answer for me than “because I want a contract with Sony”.
Judge Smith is a founder member (with singer-songwriter Peter Hammill) of 60s/70s progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator. He has been involved in numerous musical projects as writer, composer and/or performer, noted for his continued collaborations with Hammill (particularly on their opera, The Fall of the House of Usher), and new wave art singer Lene Lovich. His new album, The Climber: A Songstory (Masters of Art; MASTER105), a piece for solo voice and choir, is out now, as is a tenth anniversary reissue of his acclaimed magnum opus Curly’s Airships (Masters of Art; MASTER101).