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High-res recording can make or break a record. AFI’s Jade Puget explains why

“If you track pristine audio to begin with, you shouldn’t have to worry about, ‘Oh, we’ll just fix it in the mix.’”

It’s always fascinating to see how bands with a certain hardcore punk aesthetic evolve over time. Some of them crash, burn, and fade away with barely a whimper — but not AFI, the popular California-bred emo-punks who know exactly how to balance all the ways they concurrently pummel and nurture their fanbase.

Their latest offering, AFI (The Blood Album) — out today in various formats via Concord Records — marries the band’s deep-rooted punk DNA with serious sonic chops, from the full-on gallop of Dumb Kids to the slightly off-center thrust of She Speaks the Language to the propulsive ’80s callback of Above the Bridge.

AFI guitarist Jade Puget co-produced The Blood Album with Matt Hyde (Deftones, Slayer, Hatebreed), and the two decided early on in the process to keep the band’s overall production goalposts fairly wide open. “We just got together to see what came out, and that’s why our records tend to be eclectic,” Puget confirmed to Digital Trends. “We don’t have a goal as much as we like to see what the best songs that we’ve written are. But we do put a lot of thought into the album sequencing to make sure that someone who listens to it all the way through will find all of the songs in that order make for a kind of special journey.”

Before heading out on AFI’s first tour in over three years — “We’re a weird band; we don’t do any touring in between record cycles, so we’ll stay off the road for years at a time,” the guitarist admits — Puget got on the line with DT to discuss his favorite plug-ins and programming options, balancing tempo shifts between songs both live and on record, and reconciling hi-res desires with the streaming culture.

Digital Trends: To me, the last three songs on the record — White Offerings, She Speaks the Language, and The Wind That Carries Me Away — are the three strongest songs on The Blood Album. They’re the linchpins for telling us where you guys are at right now as artists.

Jade Puget: Oh, awesome. Thank you. Obviously, those are three very different songs from each other, but they do encapsulate what AFI is about. There’s some heaviness in there from our hardcore roots, along with some melody too. And She Speaks the Language has a lot of programming in it, which is something I love to do.

Programming has always been a key element to AFI mixes. Tell me about the gear you’re working with now. Are you using new plug-ins?

As far as my platform, I’ve been using Ableton for years now, and I love it. I tried a lot of things in the past, starting in the late ’90s with early versions of loops, Pro Tools, and a little bit of Cubase. Finally, when I got to Ableton, I knew that was what I was looking for. It just totally fit for me.

As for plug-ins, I use a lot of samples, obviously. Kontakt is my sampler, and whenever I play parts, I just use one-shots, and arrange them myself.

As far as synths and effects go, I use a lot of Waves stuff and FabFilter, which is one of my favorites, and Valhalla reverbs. And Omnisphere is such a great design tool for synths and for pianos. I also use Serum, UAD [Universal Audio]… I could go on and on. There are so many good things these days.

That’s great to hear, because the phrase I keep coming back to for the record is “sound design.” This is also the kind of album I like hearing in hi-res. Did you cut things at 96/24, or…?

I’m always a fan of using the highest resolution possible. In the studio, we’re using all-analog stuff and outboard gear, but when I bring in my layers and the guitar work I’ve done at home, it’s always been put down at 96/24.

It’s difficult, because the internal architecture of Ableton is 32-bit, so I’m always reading the threads to see if it’s best to bounce it down and dither it internally, or dither it externally. [Dithering is often implemented to reduce distortion and noise in digital recordings.] At those resolutions, it’s difficult to hear the difference between 32-bit and 24-bit — at least for me it is. I’m still kind of uncertain about what to do about that.

I think the crux of the matter is you can definitely tell the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit. But on the other side of that, I think it’s hard to tell the difference between 96k and 192k. I think I’m a pretty astute listener, but it’s hard for me to tell the differences there, you know?

Yeah. You’d have to have some real high range to your hearing to hear that. I think with a lot of that stuff, you can only hear the differences in the upper-frequencies.

I’ve had some older musicians tell me about the differences they can hear at 192, and I can only nod and think, “Well, you’re a lucky man.”

“I’ve always been a fan of recording at the highest resolution possible.”

You wonder about that with people who have been in and around music for a long time. The upper-frequencies are the first to go, just naturally.

I remember reading an interview with Tony Visconti [longtime producer for David Bowie and T. Rex], and he had lost the upper range just from mixing and monitoring for so long. It’s weird for someone older to say they hear the differences.

I like how you always experiment with time signatures like you’ve done on Snow Cats, which has that 6/8 waltz feel to it.

Yeah, I love that 3/4 or 6/8 timing there too. Usually, for every record, I’ll write one song in that time signature because it’s a fun, loping kind of thing.

That also speaks to your expertise in sequencing, because when we come to that Snow Cats shift in the record, it follows right after the different vibe we got from Above the Bridge and So Beneath You.

Some people think records should be sequenced in a way with chunks that have certain moods. To have two or three slow songs in a row and then have two uptempo songs — well, my attention span is really short, so if you have one slow song, I think you put an uptempo song right after it. If I hear a slow song, I don’t want to hear another slow song right after it.

I’m with you on that. That also speaks to the pacing of a live show, because you only want to have a really short tone break. You go breakneck for 15-20 minutes, and you’re only going to give us maybe three minutes of a breather before you get right back at it. You control where we’re going to go as an audience.

Davey [Havok, AFI vocalist] and I actually argue about this, because he’s of the opinion that, in the live show, you should have those movements like I was just saying, with a couple slow songs in a row. And I’m like, “In the live setting, I think it’ll get boring if you have seven minutes of slow music.”

We were just talking about hi-res audio, but a lot of people are going to stream The Blood Album. Are you cool with that?

I guess at this point it’s sort of moot whether I’m cool with it or not, because it’s going to happen anyway. I realize things are moving in a way I don’t necessarily want them to move, but a lot of people are going to stream it. I was just reading that vinyl sales have surpassed digital sales, so we’re in a very upside-down, strange world.

That streaming resolution isn’t ideal for the listener, but then again, the listener may not care all that much about super-high fidelity. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. But the listeners who are listening on a streaming device or through a streaming service wouldn’t listen to high fidelity anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

It does depend on the listener. Hi-res streaming is finally happening now, and you can go to a service like HDtracks and download hi-res versions of many of today’s album releases. We don’t have to accept low-level MP3s and miss some of the details and subtleties you’ve put into your mixes.

At the very least, I would hope that people would want to listen to the highest quality they could get their hands on, even if it’s at 48/24, or something.

Was vinyl the first format you started listening to as a kid?

When I first started owning music, it was on cassette, though I would hear old vinyl LPs whenever my mom played them. She was big into soul and Motown, so some of my earliest memories are of her playing early Michael Jackson, The Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye. I also remember hearing the first Beatles record.

“Hearing mixes where the drums are all on one side and the vocals are all on the other side is kind of mind-bending.”

One of the most important Beatles-related questions is: mono or stereo? Do you have a preference?

I appreciate the mono mixes, and I know that’s the more historically accurate and accepted way in terms of their early stuff, but I prefer listening in stereo because I was programmed to listen to things in stereo from an early age. Hearing mixes where the drums are all on one side and the vocals are all on the other side is kind of mind-bending.

It sure is. The closer you listen, the more you hear in a mix — and you can also spot the mistakes.

Sometimes I’ll hear this terrible, shitty snare sound, and that gets me thinking, “When you [the artist] were in the studio listening back to this mix, it must have sounded good.” So there must have been some kind of loss from what they were listening to in the studio to what eventually got to me.

And that comes at the mastering stage, right? When you get it back, you can tell, “Hey, this isn’t what I signed off on.”

That can definitely have a huge impact on the final product, but I’ve always felt the mix is the most crucial element. If you track pristine audio to begin with, you shouldn’t have to worry about, “Oh, we’ll just fix it in the mix.” To me, the mix is really where the record could be made, or broken.

Is there an example from The Blood Album where something you did at the mixing stage made a song sound better?

There are always happy accidents in the mix, like things in a song that you thought were an unimportant layer that was supposed to be in the background, but then they end up taking a front seat, or vice-versa. That always happens.

Matt [Hyde] was mixing this album on an SSL board. Halfway through the mix, we realized it was hitting the board too hard, and it was clipping! When you listened to it on headphones, you could hear certain small parts clipping on just the one side. We had to go back and fix that.

You do kinda want to hit a board hard to get that sound — that analog kind of compression — but, obviously, we went too far with it. So, occasionally, we had to put out fires like that.

I do like listening to this record pretty loud, I have to say. Remember how bands would put in the liner notes something like, “Listen to this album at maximum volume only”? For The Blood Album, you might have to put something in there like, “Listen to this album loud — but only in hi-res.”

Right! “Do not listen to this album under anything less than 96k/24 resolution — or don’t even bother!” (both laugh)