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October 29, 2014

Waka Waka - Shakira / Freshlyground

Sometimes songs happen in mysterious ways.

I was mixing South African band Freshlyground's new record at FLUX in NYC in February 2010 after having produced and tracked it in Cape Town in January. We had submitted a song to FIFA for the 2010 World Cup anthem called 'Africans' (It was called many things that day, starting with 'Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah'), which we had recorded/mixed/mastered in one day in the middle of the tracking sessions in Cape Town. We had heard nothing about it since then so we went on our merry way to finishing their album.

It also just so happened that my friend John Hill had co-written and was producing a World Cup song too, with Shakira, downstairs from my studio in New York, in his studio (It’s a fun building).

AND it so happened that since we had such an amazing time during the production and tracking phases of their record that all seven members of Freshlyground decided to come to New York to be there for the mix.

AND it also happened that John wanted to add more of an African flavor to his track.

AND is so happened that SONY/FIFA really wanted to feature duets between Western stars and African artists for this World Cup.

AND it also happened that the Shakira team had heard Freshlyground and liked them (Not sure which track, but probably the 'Africans' demo via SONY/FIFA)

So when John called one morning to ask if I had heard of an African band called Freshlyground, I said, 'Yes, I have, they are sitting right here in my control room as I'm mixing their new record'. What are the odds?

He came up the stairs with a really good stereo rough of the song on a CD and Freshlyground listened to it. We stopped the mix session, my assistants Mere and Mike set-up a full band live recording session in the Dangerous Room at Flux studios, the band started jamming to John’s rough and came up with a bunch of ideas around the original beat. In the process of coming with cool new parts to enhance John’s production, I urged Freshlyground's singer Zolani to write a little bridge kinda thing as there was no bridge on the original song. Julio laid down some cool Mozambique style guitar riffs, Shaggy played an organ patch on a Roland synth, Peter played live drums, everybody did their thing all in one room. John Hill came back up a few hours later, listened to them play the song live, loved it, so we recorded it. The guys played a couple live takes over the guide track, pretty much nailed it on the first take. We did a couple choir style vocal overdubs too. John took off with the drive and the next thing we knew, two weeks later, the song had been chosen to be the 2010 World Cup Anthem.

At first listen, I knew right away that Waka Waka had the potential of true universal appeal. The beat production was punchy and fresh. It already had some African vibe to it from the intro and a really nice traditional guitar part on the chorus outro. The version that is being played in the western world is close to that original track John gave us to work with. The bridge Zolani wrote really opens up the song and her voice is great duet material with Shakira's voice. Overall it's a really good pop song with lots of great musicianship and just the right amount of everything. We were sitting with John Hill in the studio when the song was released on iTunes. We were waiting for the very first listener comment and it was really really bad, and it made John sad. I remember telling him immediately that I thought that the track would go on to be the biggest song in the world very quickly and beat ‘My hips don’t lie’ in impact and success. And it did. My intuition was right.

What most people don't know is that a few weeks after the session, I got a call from SONY to make a more African version of the song. So I went back and produced a version featuring a lot more of the Freshlyground material that we recorded at FLUX that afternoon. That's the version that went up in the charts in South Africa and vicinity. It’s also, from what I can tell, the TV track they used for the live opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup. For that version, Zolani went back and recorded the verses and the choruses in full and I made the song more of a duet, bringing Zolani in on the first verse and giving her most of the second verse. I also added the flutes, violins, organs and percussions from the live session so that all members of Freshlyground are actually playing on the track.

The new vocal session was done over Skype while Zolani was in Johannesburg and I was here working on the track in NYC. The engineer would send me bits of verses with bar numbers in the file name over Skype and I would drop them in ProTools as they went along. It was pretty surreal. Came out great though. I sent the final mix (v1.1) to David Kutch at the Mastering Palace and it went straight to radio the day after that. It’s called Waka Waka Afrofab mix.

You can listen to it here:

The more Shakira centric version lives here:

It is very educational to compare the two versions.

Listen to the differences bass drum sounds. I knew my mix had to sound good in a huge stadium and through tv speakers and I knew that most details would disappear and be smeared, so I spent a long time crafting a kick that would be as fat as possible but would not have a tail at all. It would allow for clear playing in the stadium despite the reverb and it would read over tv speaker despite the lack of bottom. There are actually four or five different kicks in the session. They change from section to section. The verse one is lighter and the chorus one is fatter. They are not steady, they change tone every other beat. You can hear these details more in the Afro version because of the lesser compression levels. It was a challenge to keep the steady center and to still keep that detail. There are also about 5 snare drum tracks depending on the section of the song. They all play the Soca rhythm in various levels of overdrive and give the forward motion of the song. They also change tone from beat to beat. It gives the track a more organic feel. That was John’s idea.

I think it’s really interesting to analyse the difference in impact of the chorus between the two versions. It illustrates the challenges of making music in a modern high pressure environment. Listen to the transition between verse and chorus on the mainstream version and listen to the same thing on the afro version. Amazing difference no? What’s at play here is mastering compression and limiting crushing the mainstream version to the point where there is no level difference between verse and chorus. In contrast the afro version lifts and breathes better. The chorus lifts in intensity and presence as a chorus should. The interesting take away is that there is no benefit to crushing the track so much. On Youtube for example, or Spotify, most of the time the less compressed version will feel louder than the crushed version. Compare both mixes on Youtube (Where good sounding music goes to die) with default settings and you’ll notice that the less compressed version kills the other one. Isn’t that stunning?

Notice also how the extra headroom the afro version allowed it to be fatter (Except the kick for the aforementioned reasons) and more open at the same time. It’s a bigger sounding track, from the exact same session.

It’s also fun to make a list of all the little elements that are present on the afro version but not on the mainstream version. Can you hear the flutes on the left? Organ on the right? Extra verse guitars and 3 violins pizzicato riffs? The extra vocal interventions by Zolani? Can you hear the not so perfect edit on Zolani’s voice on both version? Which do you like best? The stark simple binary mainstream version or the more flowery rootsy afro version?

Also, you can hear a lot more detail of the original beat production on the afro version because I was free to do whatever I liked. The mainstream version is a lot more kick and vocal centric for crush reasons. There is only so much that will survive that treatment and those are the most important part. Trying to make a loud record with 100 tracks is guaranteed failure. There is a lot to learn from hip-hop there. But comparing these two version of the same track gives you a peek at what goes on behind the scenes.

So next time you elect to crush a song of yours to please a client/A&R/drummer’s girlfriend, you may want to play them these two version of the same production, level matched, and ask them which they like best.