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School Of Seven Bells, on Ethereal Vocal Layering

August 1, 2010

By Patrick Sisson

SVII_PhotoSchool of Seven Bells (left to right)—Alejandra Deheza, Benjamin Curtis, and Claudia Deheza.

The Cocteau Twin-esque dream pop of School of Seven Bells contains a particular mix of weighty and weightless vocals from identical twin singers Claudia and Alejandra Deheza. Their shimmering melodies and intricate harmonies may conjure up visions of endless effects pedals, but the band relies on precise layering and a vocals-first approach.

“There’s so much going on with a voice that’s not happening with a guitar,” says Benjamin Curtis, the band’s guitarist and producer. “It’s the most unique organic sound that you can manipulate.”

While recording their sophomore disc Disconnect From Desire [Vagrant/Ghostly International] at their home studio in New York City, Curtis set up a Neumann U 87 with a high-pass filter and hung it upside-down. Overdubbing and rarely singing simultaneously, the singers have similar voices but different styles. Alejandra comes on stronger and dives into extended explorations of scales, singing about a foot off the mic. And Claudia, who weaves in intricate harmonies, is more premeditated and sings right next to the mic, often barely above a whisper. The contrast is clear on “The Wait.” Alejandra glides through strong harmonies during subdued verses, while Claudia’s pinpoint flourishes energize the chorus.

Curtis runs tracking vocals through a Universal Audio SOLO/610 pre directly to Logic, without compression. “I replaced the stock tubes in the UA 610 with older tubes, which opened up the sound,” he says. “We tried the Empirical Labs Mike-E, which we use live, but it wasn’t sounding right. We thought recording with compression was going to enhance the sound, but they don’t need it. We compress the hell out of everything in the mix, but I hated making that decision early on.”

Occasional vocal effects crop up, such as the delay and reverb that gave “Joviann” extra bite, or the chorus of “Babelonia,” sung a step up then pitched down for more personality. But Curtis and mixing engineer Jack Joseph Puig focused on blending and placing vocal tracks (up to 20 a song) in the fore.

“I like printing the vocals in mono to make sure the frequencies are fighting,” says Curtis. “Putting vocals last is a problem. It’s the same frequency range as guitars. Get the vocals down and know where they’re going to live and don’t be married to the guitar. It’s a beautiful thing when frequencies are rubbing. Your brain always picks out the center note and the weird interactions in the speaker. It’s beautiful.”

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