Hansi Kursch

Blind Guardian

Austin: First off, who were the singers you listened to growing up that made you want to become a singer?

Hansi: Freddy Mercury and Ian Gillan have been the first two vocalists who have really moved something in me. 

Have you always had a natural ability to sing or is it something that came with lots of time and practice?
Hansi: As far as I can think back I loved to sing. I always considered that an expression of my good mood and never looked at it as my first step in becoming a vocalist. When I started making music I had a stronger tendency to become a guitarist. That changed when I met André Olbrich in school, who needed a bassist and a vocalist for his band "Zero Fault". He has been the one realizing my potential as a vocalist. I was screaming Gillan and MSG parts during one of our high school parties. He somehow liked it. All in all I would say my singing is natural but some of the skills I have nowadays are the result of constant practice.

What kind of vocal training have you had in the past?
Hansi: Apart from natural abilities which helped in the early days of Blind Guardian, I didn't do anything to improve my vocal skills until "Tales from the Twilight World",our third album. A friend of mine who was working on his career as a pop vocalist taught me a few tricks. What we basically were doing was practicing some songs from the sixties. Despite the 60´s songs we always ended up with Manowar´s 'Heart of Steel'. Afterwards I seriously started taking classical vocal lessons. My teacher is a female opera singer and taught me a lot about breathing and how to establish and widen my range. Since she has been disappointed with the snobish attitude of classical musicians here in Europe she never tried to change my musical ideology, nor did she try to have an impact on how I do my Metal stuff in the studio. She accepted the differences between technical knowledge and abilities and the necessity of using them (or not)  in Guardian songs.

Have you ever done any major damage to your voice? 
Hansi: Throughout my career my ears have been the bigger problem. I do have tinitus, which luckily disappears from time to time, but does also come back. I also have to say that like most people I find it more difficult to listen than to talk. Apart from that I constantly have to struggle with sinuses, which especially on tour can cause severe problems, because Blind Guardian´s one and only golden rule is "do not cancel a show due to illness". Painful for everyone but extremely dangerous for vocalists of course. Even with the most horrible laryngitis I've gone on stage. I have not found a way to keep full control with regard to my vocal technique in such cases. So that´s the point when I exhaust my vocal cords and sometimes ruin my voice for a few weeks. To recover completely after such situations I would need rest at least for a quarter of a year, which we usually don't have. Still,  I never have had any serious damage which had to be fixed. That´s probably because I carefully build up my voice after we have finished touring. It can take up to twelve months until I reach a new peak in terms of full control and possible new regions to sing in. 

You seem to have a pretty wide range; do you have any idea of what it currently is?
Hansi: I don't have an exact idea because the scaling of ranges depend a little bit on perspective. I dare to say I have three and a half octaves. On our albums you can find some rare "Crash Test Dummies" lines as in "Noldor" or in "Thorn" as you can find real high pitch stuff. "A Night at the Opera" is full of it. When I listen to this album I sometimes wonder how I could do this stuff. It´s pretty fast, high and very precise. Though I am voicewise in an even better condition than I was in 2000/2001 I am happy that our new stuff scratches my raspy mid range more than the spheres on "ANATO". All in all it is not important how wide your range is. The way a vocalist uses the two necessary octaves to express himself and the given musical performance will make him an exceptional and recognizable vocalist. 

You have good control over the actual tonality of your voice. Tell me the kinds of differences you feel in your voice when you're singing high with a gritty tone as opposed to singing high with a clean tone?

Hansi: First of all sound makes me determine which direction I design a part in. If the music supplies a more clinical and clean atmosphere (mostly but not only created by chorus guitar patterns) I most likely will go for the high and clean tone, which can be performed as a clean but fairly thin falsetto voice or as a clean controlled chest voice  depending on the intensity of the musical pattern.

For most parts I use my lower belly and keep it under balanced control. During the performance of a "clean falsetto" air stream runs up the spine and finds an almost straight way out to my nostrils. My jaw region is relaxed; I could even chew gum.

If I go for a full tone the procedure is almost similar. The biggest difference I would feel is at the very end of my spine, which I use as support for a balanced tune. When the air and the tune comes up it tries to find a way out of my skull but stays in. Most air will come out to my mouth, jaw is widened under control as well as the top of my mouth, which I try keep as relaxed as possible. It usually takes a little longer until I get the perfect clean chest part.

Most difficult are the gritty high tones, because there is only a small difference between a controlled raging high pitched distorted performance and an almost hysterical, desperate attempt of a poor scream, which hurts my vocal cords. Doing some of these can spoil a whole day and I could have too much grit on my cords the next day which has an effect on the other keys I sing in. I prefer to switch to clean vocal recordings then so that the raspy mid range and the heights can recover.

Back to the gritty ones: I need perfect control for these to avoid problems. The playback volume is essential. Too loud means I most probably will over-scream the part and the result will be thin and ill sounding. Too quiet means I will hear possible mistakes in my performance and become insecure. Since my ears work differently every day this is a big challenge for every engineer. The music as well as the vocals should be completely dry so it´s easier for me to differ, especially when I do harmonies or stack myself. Depending on the range I sing my body is more or less completely in use. If it's a high figure with a high climax and I am set up properly there won´t be any pressure on my vocal cords or the neck region. This region supplies the amount of raspy ingredients I want to add. All the rest including the result happen everywhere in my body but can be felt best at the bottom of my spine, in my feet and at the top of my head.  

The majority of your songs are full of layer after layer of vocal harmony. Do you record each vocal track individually, use a harmonizer, or some mixture of the two?
Hansi: Each track is recorded individually. Harmonizers and "perfect pitch" programs do not work well with my voice due to distortion and the natural double layer effects my vocal cords have. After having fixed everything, we do the same voices in a real choir session, again.

Is your sense of harmony intuitive or was it something you honed through study?
Hansi: There are and there were different steps in the progression of creation. Some things just happen and come naturally. To me they seem to be given by the music and the circumstances going along with it. I usually get a fully layered arrangement (or parts of it) before I start my vocal composing. In most cases I have to find my way through walls of guitars, effects and larger than life drum arrangements. I try to keep the original musical intention or at least what I consider to be the musical intention. I have to struggle with high pitch lead guitar orchestration, which means that at one or the other point I have to get to these regions as well, because if I did not do so later on it would be difficult to create a vocal arrangement which makes an instrumental composing a vocal dominated singalong song. 

How hard is it for you to do your material live? You obviously don't have the luxury of being able to do all of the huge harmonies during a concert, so how do you go about pulling off the song with the same amount of energy/complexity?
Hansi: Impossible in some and very cruel in many cases I have to admit. I have to live with compromises. We are not able to build up the gigantic choir walls with only five people on stage being able to sing. Out of these five three do only have limited qualities as vocalist. Therefore we try to supply basic choir information. I have to say that this usually works very well and we have found a decent way to keep the original intention. We are taking great benefit from the performance of our loyal fans who really sing throughout the whole concert. That also makes my job a little easier. The high pitch parts are barely ever an option. These parts are not only a difficulty because they are hard to sing on a constant level, but also because we are musically changing keys a lot and I constantly have to struggle with ranges, dynamics and complexity in the vocals and in the music.

Again, listening becomes the essential point. The better I can hear the necessary musical keys, the better I will sing. I don´t say we are the only band having this problem, but in our case it is more obvious because melodies play a very important role in our music.

I'll try to give an example. A vocalist only singing to rhythm guitar supported music can sing out of key and you will not recognize it because both sounds and ranges are fairly close to each other. The more melodious information you have and the more these melodies interact the faster you will recognize bum notes, to say it nicely. In many songs we do have a lot of elements interacting at the same time. This can drive you nuts.

Since we're discussing your vocal harmonies, I want to go a little into your recording and writing process. Could you describe a typical day in the studio? How do you prepare, what do you record first, etc.
Hansi: Usually we work in two shifts. I am priviliged to proclaim the day shift as my godgiven territory, while guitars rule at night times. Nowadays since the amount of vocals has become bigger and bigger I do not work longer than five hours on vocals. My working day usually starts with a correction, creation and controlling of lyrics I am supposed to sing later on. After brewing coffee I continue with warming up. My excercises take up to 90 minutes. For most patterns I practice 2 full octaves in each step. Only a few lessons ever go up to the highest and lowest regions I can sing to get them activated as well. Afterwards I decide which parts I want to start with. That of course depends a lot on my daily condition. Naturally I try to start with a song I consider to be easier. I have been proven wrong several times. There is hardly anything I regard as standard when I have finished my songwriting because I like to explore my limits. 

When you're writing a song, how do you come up with melody ideas? There is obviously a lot going on throughout each of your songs so it must be hard to think of ways to make all those different ideas fit together into one cohesive song?
Hansi: That´s correct. Some of my ideas are based on what is originally there already. But this would not work in a majority of cases and would also turn out to be boring throughout a whole song. So, for most parts I try to find crossing lines. That means I have to find the right range for the main vocal lines to realize it first. After that I consider the right parts to sing on and the right moments for the vocal keypoint. Once that is done it is trial and error. After a while I do have a sort of picture in mind which helps me to finish the first part. Afterwards it is "jigsawpuzzling".

Do you usually track the lead vocal before the backing vocals?

Hansi: Lead vocals first, but sometimes there is no lead voice. So in many cases I finish a choir/layer package before I continue. This also means we travel backwards and forwards through the song. Sometimes I have completed a whole song before I redo everything again. A painful experience with so many layers. The difference is not gigantic, so its mostly done for one´s ego.

Where do you start with the tracking of the backing vocals? Do you usually begin with the low parts and build up?
Hansi: That is a question of priorities. Usually I prefer a mid range voice or a sort of extremely important voice which can be regarded as the master voice to determine exact speed, dynamic and expression for the others following later on. I found it extremely dangerous to start with lower ones or the easier ones because they sometimes do not reveal phonetical mistakes in the lyrical flow, while high ones usually do. Another painful experience in the past. The flow of words is important.

What kind of processing, if any, do you use to help create the massive sound of your vocals? Do you utilize or are you against the modern vocal processing technology (auto tune, harmonizing, vocoder, etc.)?
Hansi: Vocoder and harmonizing utilities are no option. But we have used manual auto tuning for single voice layers. As mentioned before the distorted intention of singing at parts but also the massive use of "Wah" guitars during vocal performances do make it difficult to use autotune in a regular way. Vocal intonation is based on the individual tuning of each song.  

How exactly do you come up with your final vocal performance? Is it usually all done in a take or two, or is it a compilation of dozens of takes?
Hansi: That differs a lot. It can be both ways. I will not finish before I am completely satisfied, which usually takes a while.  In very rare cases it is Charlie Bauerfeind, or André, who has to be satisfied while I would have been happy with my performance before that.

Now, when you perform live, how do you keep in good health and good voice?
Hansi: I try to stay sober. That is a golden rule. I have found out that drinking before a show spoils everything. I can recall 4 or 5 shows in my career during which I entered stage not completely sober. They all ended up a catastrophe. That has been a very healthy experience. Luckily I do not smoke and the smoking habits of those around me have changed completely. No one smokes in the tour bus anymore. That´s a little helpful. Other than that I try to get as much sleep as possible.

That turns out to be difficult once I am on the road due to bus rides, flights, etc. Most importantly for my health is to warm up properly. I sometimes try to warm up for more than 90 minutes even on the road. Theoretically this could lead me to being healthy throughout a whole tour. Practically it will never work out completely. As soon as someone gets a cold I will get it sooner or later. I have not found miracle cure to get back to full condition afterwards. So, I have to carefully improvise with what is left. Having the experience of many shows singing in such shape I have started to make that part of my daily exercises and I do have the feeling I have found a good way during the last months, but this needs to be proven during our next shows and the world tour.

When you do happen to get sick, what sort of things do you do to get your voice back to normal for that night's show?
Hansi: I found many things which are helpful. But nothing can be considered to be the reinvention of the wheel. If ranges of my voice are gone due to illness they will stay gone for a while. I consider this to be the first part of a recovery process. To stay calm and to stay in bed as long as possible can be very helpful if you are totally sick. In case I do not feel sick but my voice seems to be exhausted - just as a warning of the upcoming illness- I try to relax and do as many nice things as possible. Other than that I drink as much water and lemon tea (including honey,ginger and from time to time coconut milk) as possible. While warming up I prefer to do more relaxing exercises. I practice a fairly quiet and clean "You" exercise, five full tones down as a cure for my vocal cords.With that one I try to open my voice up for to two full complete octaves. Sometimes I do this one day in and day out. Even in the worst cases I get back my regular speaking voice and can sing ballad stuff properly but it is of no help in getting back aggressive high pitch singing like in "Imaginations ..." or "This will never end". As I said, I work on that issue and hope to be successful with what I try out at the moment.  

What does your pre-performance warm up process consist of?
Hansi: There is a wide range of different excersises. Usually it all starts with breathing. I call it "three stage breathing", keeping the air in for three seconds before I let it disappear carefully throughout a little gap while performing a toneless "SSSS...". The first air disappearing is that from my belly and spine region, before I go up this region of my body is allowed to relax. My chest stays active until I stop performing and preparing for the breath in. After breathing I try to activate each region of my body, which is somehow connected to the singing process.

A big problem for singers is getting their voice ready to go in the morning; how do you prepare for an early morning performance like a radio interview/acoustic set?
Hansi: If it's an interview I most probably will not do anything. In case of an acoustic set I most probably will do a set of relaxing exercises, followed by a rehearsal of the upcoming songs. I would not do too much in either case.

Give me a summary of a day on the road for you. What kinds of preshow rituals do you have, promotional stuff to be done, soundchecks, etc.
Hansi: A day on the road looks as follows. Sleeping in a stinky bus until 9 or 10 AM. Afterwards there are two options: 1) Asking for a day room, but the request will be turned down: Breakfast with the crew. Waiting for someone waking up who is not working. Going out for some physical excersises (as long as I am not sick). Doing sightseeing. Having signing sessions and /or interviews. Warming up for soundcheck. Soundcheck. Warming up for the show - if there is a room available I can find some rest, which hardly ever is the case in the venues we are playing in. Meet and Greet/Interview. Show. Shower in the venue if it is halfway comfortable. Sleeper coach. 

2)  succesful begging for a day room in the production office:  I first get the other guys woken up for departure to the hotel. Take a shower in the hotel. Back to bed. Sleeping. Call my wife. Prepare my voice for soundcheck. Soundcheck - Breakfast/Lunch, siging promotional stuff - Hotel - Shower and warming up for the show - Meet and Greet/sometimes interviews- Show - Back to the hotel for shower - Sleeper coach.
In both cases we are really longing for the next off-day.


Finally, what is the single biggest piece of advice you would give to a young singer wanting to break into the industry.
Hansi: Be yourself and relax.