Vocal Special: The Masters Voice

There is no other singer who could win as many prizes as best singer in heavy metal than Ronald Padevona who has been better known as Ronnie James Dio since the mid-seventies. For years, his voice has been considered the cream of the crop when it comes to what H.M. has to offer in the field of singing. Yet, during Dio's youth, it didn't look like Ronnie James would walk the shaky path of rock'n'roll.

After successfully passing a pharmacy exam, he came to the conclusion that it was not his final destination. His parents saw a solid future disappear when he became a professional musician. After visiting groups like Elf, Rainbow and Black Sabbath as a stopover, the singer seems to have found his final destination with his own band. Ronnie James Dio, 'The King Of Rock'n'Roll'.

Ronnie, in heavy metal you are known as the undisputed 'king'. To have such a great success as a singer you need talent, stamina and luck. If you look back to the beginning of your career, what were the decisive influences that paved your way to success?

Before I say anything about that, I first want to emphasize something else. Without my staff of technicians, I would be nothing at all. I am referring especially to Angelo Arqueri my sound engineer who performs and in the studio. I've been working with him since 1979. I met him while I was with Black Sabbath.

He has good and developed hearing. For a sound engineer this is very important when it comes to singing. If there is anyone who has shaped my voice in the technical field, it is he. By that I mean the use of technical equipment.

Furthermore, we are in possession of equally great PA from Tasco. Real name is Tasco Harwell. For me this PA is you from the hard rock and heavy metal field. This PA has a great subwoofer and develops an enormous pressure and power that you never achieve with any other PA system. Especially the sound. that kick to the butt that you give the audience as a H.M. hand, and I mean that in a positive sense, must come across as overwhelming, raw, aggressive and sharp. There is a big difference between simple volume that is large and the enormous pressure that comes off the stage.

I did not want to avoid your question to indicate that as a singer you are also dependent on technical facilities just like any other musician. You can be a good singer, but if you can't handle a microphone and a stage installation, you can't do anything. If you play in a band you have to rely on the PA and a microphone because otherwise nobody will hear you. To be able to do your job well as a singer you have to be able to control and combine your voice and technique.

When did you actually sing for the first time?

The first time I was seven years old. I must also add that at the age of five I started not playing the trumpet.

Surely you were still in kindergarten then?

Indeed, when I started playing the trumpet, it was. When I was 7 I was, wait a minute, in second grade and I was a little boy. Admittedly I am not very big now, but then I was such a boy of whom people always said: "Oh, he is such a small and nice little man."

At that time a play was being performed at school and someone was still looking for a role that involved singing. Suddenly someone said that I looked so sweet and small and that I should sing that part. I thought I was hit by lightning because I had never sung in my life. But that didn't help, I had to sing anyway. To my surprise it went very well. I had never sung a note before, just screamed as a baby (laughs).

What do you think was the reason everything went so well not your voice?

As I said, I had been playing the trumpet for two years. Until I was seventeen I practiced very intensively on that thing. When I quit I hated that thing. I think that has happened to many musicians. The twelve years that I played the trumpet were the best way for me to practice my voice, especially because I learned how to breathe well as a child. Proper breathing is the most important thing, especially when playing the trumpet. As a trumpet player you have to breathe through the diaphragm to produce a good tone. You have to get the air out of your stomach. The vocal cords are just like the petal in the mouthpiece of an oboe or a saxophone. They are there to guide and vibrate us the air.

If the air comes from deep in the middle riff you are able to produce nice long tones and especially to provide the tone with the right volume and the right power. There are of course people who do not master this so important technique and sing from the throat or head voice. Physically it is not really possible because you do not have enough air to keep us in tune and to sing well. The tone originates in the abdomen and is only controlled by the vocal cords. If the tone comes from your throat, it has no foundation and power. The base of the tone comes from your stomach or rather from your diaphragm.

I've never had singing lessons because breathing from your diaphragm and playing the trumpet are actually the same. I have never needed singing lessons and the feeling of being able to progress with a singing teacher has always been strange to me. I've always known how to sing. Usually singing teachers try to teach you the singing style that suits them best. When forming a voice it is very important not to take into account the character and personality of the person singing. The great danger of singing lessons is that the individuality and the natural sound color are lost and that everything is shaved over one chance.

Do you do special exercises to keep your voice in top condition?

You may be surprised now, but I don't do that. I never sing before I step onto the stage, let alone warm up my voice. When I start singing at the performance, that's the first thing I sing that day. I have never done voice exercises. I step onto the stage and start to sing. The longer the concert lasts, the better I start to sing. Most singers start in top shape at a performance and are hoarse at the end. I just start and get better over time. Of course I am lucky to have such a voice. But it is also a matter of routine that you must know to use during your singing activities. In fact, you experience the same thing, the more you write the better you become as a journalist. If you are on stage week after week for years, you learn a lot of tricks that come in handy when you don't have your day for once. I know exactly what my vote can handle on any given day and what not.

And then you certainly do everything at half speed?

No never! Of course it sometimes happens before my throat is infected or my vocal cords are swollen and everyone tells me to take it easy. I don't know how to take it easy. That does not appear in my dictionary. If I sing to the audience at a performance, I can't let them down, otherwise I lose my self-respect. I make demands of myself and when I read that I have been chosen as best H. M. singer in your magazine for several years, I want to win that title again the following year. I am so ambitious about them. Every night I do my best.

If I got the feeling that even one person in the audience would say to the person standing next to him, "Well, that Dio is not as good as I expected," I would be frustrated and disappointed. I make them very proud my voice and my strength as a singer.Every performance I have to feel that I am the best them.

That's why I don't know what it is like to sing at half power. I sing with 200% commitment. And if I don't feel well, I give 195% and not 95. Voice problems are always of a psychological nature, I am not sick anyway. I have had a cold many times but it never occurred to me to cancel a show because of that.

Then you have never had any problems with your voice?

If I catch them I can do nothing. My mind says I'm okay so I sing. I sing right through my cold or my problems.

The most important thing man has is his mind, which is much stronger than his body. Many of my colleagues have managed to cancel an entire tour.

Then you are one of the few singers who is really happy with his voice...

Of course this is very unusual. After all these years I still do not notice any symptoms of fatigue. Until now, every throat, nose, and ear doctor who checked my vocal cords was very surprised because they had never seen anything like it. My vocal cords have a very nice caliber. I tell you a lot about my voice now, but that doesn't mean that I always have everything under control.

What exactly do you mean by that?

I notice exactly when I am not singing properly. Then I have problems with my... Let me put it this way, then I have pain in the lower regions (laughs). That is no joke. I have to watch my voice when we haven't played for a while or haven't been in the studio for a long time. Singing isn't like bodybuilding. If you train for months and then do nothing for a long time, you cannot start with the weights you stopped with. When I start again I feel the strength in my voice increasing day by day. Sometimes it is wrong to do nothing for a long time and I already said where you get pain. Then my body tells my mind that I should sing better and I succeed. Singing means that as a singer you have to know exactly what mistakes you made.

We were just talking about the time when you are not on tour. What does a normal working day look like in the life of Ronnie James Dio?

Everything I do has to do with music. Either I'm in the studio or I'm on stage. If I don't, I'll be composing at home.

How do you compose songs and vocal lines?

Don't laugh, because I sit in front of the television and watch sports broadcasts. If I would listen to music I would not get anything done. It has always been my big dream to become an athlete or football player. Unfortunately, to this day I am not big and strong enough for that. That is why it is very important to my imagination that I watch those matches on television. The best ideas come from a good American football game, the Olympics or the football world cup. At home I always get up very early to feed my dogs and cats. They do wake me up between 8 and 9 in the morning. That is the best time for me to do something. Then I am very creative and good ideas arise. Other than that, my day is going normally. I compose either at home or in the studio. All in all, it is not all that spectacular, as most fans always think.

You have a very powerful voice. Do you prefer a particular brand or type of microphone?

Yes, on stage I only use an AKG 330 BT vocal microphone. I used to have a SM 58 from Shure but I like the 330 much better. The problems are of course very different in the studio than on the stage. In the studio, I can't get past Neumann's U 87.

It depends on the singer what kind of microphone he uses, not the microphone itself: Every voice is different and needs a certain kind of microphone. I have a very special timbre in my voice, which I can of course change, but it is essential to Ronnie Janies Dio. All tones that I sing can naturally, so no head voice or anything.

What is your vocal range?

About three and a half octaves. My highest note used to be a requirement. If I get into good shape them I get even higher and get the f. That is already insanely high for a tenor.

We've been talking about your existence as a musician, music and singing all along. Because of the 'Hear'nAid' project, many people who were negative towards hard rock and heavy metal, have noticed that this music is a bit more than just hearing damage and noise.

You have stated in the press that you were very disappointed with a bunch of musicians, who initially would participate, but when it came down to it, they were absent. Can you imagine getting another project like this off the ground?

It was great what everyone has done for Africa. Of course it also showed how some colleagues felt about this. In America I have already been asked if we could do a tour with all the musicians who cooperated. But what about the rest of the world? How many people die of starvation in America or he you? They should not be forgotten either! My thoughts are for the whole world. Feeding the people of Africa and keeping them alive is a business. But that does not solve hunger. In these countries people must also learn to take care of themselves. It is easy to send grain. But more important is to teach these people how to grow their own grain so that they can fight their own problems. All this constant development aid makes people in Africa forever dependent and they remain beggars. The opposite also needs to be worked on. Besides, how are you supposed to get the musicians from the H.M. scene together? We work harder than other musicians. Judas Priest is in America, Scorpions is working on the title of a new LP. Iron Maiden starts to tour. How do you want to get everyone in one place in the world? Besides, I want to do things for the whole world, not for a specific country.

Stefan Kerzel, Metal Hammer/Aardschok - September 1986