Case Study # 1: Agua de Coco by Marcos Valle

Reference track details.

  • Song – Agua De Coco
  • Artist – Marcos Valle
  • Album – Contrasts
  • Year of release – 2003 / Label – Far Out Recordings (London).

The reference track was released as a single which appeared on the Album – Contrasts. Please click on the link below for a review of the album Contrasts. Review: Marcos Valle – Contrasts

Listen to the track by clicking on the play button below.


The reference track: Agua De Coco – Marcos Valle, was sourced as inspiration for the first project of the subject AUD210. This subject is part of a degree in audio that I’m currently studying at SAE – Brisbane. The requirements of this subject are to encourage independent learning that encompasses 18 learning outcomes, 7 graduate attributes and 10 transferable / soft skills.

The case study has been designed to assist students in the process of ‘reverse engineering’ a reference track for two project recordings that form the basis of my primary ‘deliverables’ for the trimester. Reference tracks are chosen on the basis that they should meet a particular outcome for the project and the case study should assist me in creating a recording that not only resembles the sonic qualities of the reference track but also meets the learning outcomes for the trimester.

The first step in this process was to create a critical and analytical listening framework that I could use to assess my chosen reference track and then conduct a case study to assist in the process of evaluating and then re-creating important aspects of the reference track. My journey has been less ‘linear’ and little more ‘circuitous’. My first project was already underway and eventually completed before this framework or case study could be completed.  Feedback received from my facilitator Peter Trimbacher, has suggested that our goal of incorporating important sonic qualities from both this reference track, Agua De Coco – Marcos Valle and Nangs – Tame Impala, have been achieved. Please click on the following link to listen to the results of project 1.



The approach taken to this case study has been organised as follows:

  • 1. The reference track was imported into pro tools
  • 2. The tempo of the reference track was matched using the ‘tap tempo’ feature in pro tools which, facilitates an accurate analysis of song structure
  • 3. The structure of the song was assessed within pro tools and various sections identified using markers and colour coding all the sections (please refer to the image below)
  • 4. The core musical elements within the reference track were identified

Song Structure

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There are layers of melodies, that are performed by both voice and instruments that are specific to various sections throughout the song. The deliberate interaction of both vocal and instrumental melodies compliment each other and create a depth of ‘texture’ through timbre. The song structure of Agua De Coco is quite inventive and an excellent example of how to create interest for the listener while maintaining a steady groove throughout the song.

Fig. 1.1 – click to enlarge

There are essentially two main musical passages within Agua De Coco; primary, secondary and one musical sub-section that I’ve identified. The primary musical passage contains two chords Cm9 and Gm7 / 11 which has layers melodic variations placed on top of the main ‘groove’.

The part of the song represented by fig. 1.2 below, is a wonderful example of how variety is added through various layers of vocal melodies that also signal the introduction of new sections throughout the song. The example below shows the choir melody being performed over the primary musical passage of two chords (Cmin9 – G min 7/11), which is then used to signal a variation that introduces the trombone solo. This is performed over the same musical passage that the choir melody has been based on and then the bridge is introduced.


Fig. 1.2 – click to enlarge

The effect for the listener is to create the impression of a another section within the song but, upon further inspection, it becomes clear that the same primary musical passage is being repeated with another musical element layered on top.

The next part of the song, represented by fig. 1.3 below, demonstrates once again, how melodic invention and variety is achieved through different phrasing and variation within the melody. The verse is extended by repetition ( 3 times) and effectively becomes a coda. The verse melody and phrasing is repeated over the harmonic structure associated with the primary musical passage. The instrumentation introduced in the coda, then interplays with the choir melody which is then layered on top of this. The unifying theme throughout the coda is the melodic phrasing that is repeated but, new lyrics are added. The instrumentation that is introduced during the coda, harmonises with the choir melody and differs in its’ phrasing and melodic intervals.

Fig. 1.3 – click to enlarge

The section that I have labelled ‘coda’ / verse + instrum(ental) + choir melody, demonstrates a combination of nearly all of the musical elements that have been introduced through various points of the song and builds toward the finish of it. The choir melody for example, steps up in pitch initially and then steps down while, the of the choir melody initially steps down and then upwards to landing upon a note that harmonies with the vocal melody. The phrasing is also different in that the instrumental melody is straight 8th notes while the choir melody is more syncopated with dotted quavers. The choir melody then takes on a more prominent role as it is the last thing to be heard on the track with the last notes of that melody being sustained while the song ends.

The core musical elements (listed in perceived order of importance)

  • Voice / group vocals – Marcus Valle
  • Acoustic Guitar – classical nylon string
  • Drums – Programmed
  • Bass – Alex Malheiros
  • Keyboards (clavinet) – Kaidi Tatham
  • Melodica – Marcos Valle


Critical / Analytical Analysis – Methodology

For the purposes of providing a methodical analysis of all of the core musical elements of: Agua De Coco, a framework for both critical and analytical listening, as prescribed by Jason Corey in Audio Production and Critical Listening (2010), will be followed. This framework will be applied to each of the core elements.

There are seven steps in the framework supplied by Corey are:

  1. Overall bandwidth
  2. Spectral balance
  3. Auditory image
  4. Spatial impression,
  5. Dynamic range
  6. Noise and distortion
  7. Balance of elements within a mix

These seven steps to the critical listening will be applied to each core musical element and then an overall assessment of the reference track, from a purely analytical perspective. will be conducted. The only exception to this process will be the first step – Overall Bandwidth which applies to the entire track and not just the core musical elements. This step will be completed first and the use of a spectrum analyser will be applied to provide an analysis in respect to this parameter of the critical listening.

Overall Bandwidth – Agua De Coco by Marcus Valle

This step requires the reference track to be assessed from the perspective of the frequency content that is evident with the use of a spectrum analyser. What is most evident is the low pass filter that has been applied to the track at the 15kHz point, and the vertical line that appears in the graphical readout from the frequency analyser. This would would suggest that the song has been engineered and mixed to be ‘radio friendly’ because the frequency capacity of FM radio only extends to 15 kHz (Corey, J. 2010, p. 136).  The song also came to my attention 3 years later when it appeared on the Putumayo label compilation of ‘chill out’ music from Brazil appropriately titled: Brazilian Lounge.

Click to enlarge

Other conclusions that can be drawn from the from frequency analysis image fig. 2 above, is that the mix isn’t overly ‘bright’. This can be seen in the ‘dynamic envelope’ of the overall mix gradually sloping from a fundamental frequency point around the 220 Hz mark to the sudden reduction in frequency amplitude previously mentioned at the 15 kHz mark. The track has an overall ‘warm’ sound but never sounds ‘harsh’ and doesn’t have a ‘strident’ mid – range as there is a notable reduction in frequency amplitude just before the 2 kHz mark from -30 dB to -50 dB.

Core musical element #1 – Voice / Group vocals

Click to enlarge

The vocals add a number of different textures to this reference track and the amount of frequency spectrum that is allotted to them is reasonably large. While scanning the frequency spectrum of the track, I noticed that the vocals seemed to be present over a great area of the available frequencies. I settled upon the 2kHz point as the fundamental frequency for the vocals and it is easily visible that the main vocal frequency range extend from 1kHz to almost 5kHz. The background vocals, or choir as I’ve termed this musical element, actually seems to extend a little higher in the frequency range and were in evidence up to around the 6 – 7kHz range. This may attributed to the the type of reverb assigned to the background vocals which are quite prominent while never as ‘present’ as the main vocal which is very has been recorded with a very close microphone placement and sounds generally quite ‘dry’ without too much reverb being placed on it.

 Core musical element # 2 – Acoustic guitar

Click to enlarge

The acoustic guitar is a very important element in Agua De Coco as it the rhythmic phrasing of the performer, Marcos Valle, that reminds the listener of a traditional Bossa Nova / Samba rhythm but isn’t consistent with the standard syncopation between bass note and upper register of the chord. The playing style is quite staccato and is essentially treated as both a harmonic and percussive manner. The combination of the percussive playing style and limited movement within the harmony allows other elements to be layered on top of the instrument. The treatment of the guitar from an engineering perspective is to place the guitar slightly back in the mix but reasonably central to it. This has possibly been achieved by creating a stereo recording of the guitar and panning both left and right and adding a small amount of reverb to place it slightly back in the mix. Another alternative might have been to create artificial stereo by duplicating the guitar track and panning both left and right.

Core Musical Elements #3 – The drum track

A notable elements of the reference track ‘Agua De Coco’ is the prominence given to the low register in this song. The kick drum is conveniently isolated during the introduction section (refer to fig. 1) with drum track, acoustic guitar and a keyboard clavinet and melodica, panned hard left and right. The bass is only played sporadically in the introduction section which allowed me to identify the prominence of the kick drum with the frequency analyser.


agua_intro_kick peak
Click to enlarge


The kick drum appears to be prominent between the 47 Hz and 100 Hz range and the amplitude has a noticeable peak at the -14dB mark with a steady decline in amplitude to the -50dB mark. From the amplitude peak of the kick drum at the -14 dB mark, there is a noticeable downward slope toward the -40 dB mark toward to 170 – 180 Hz mark where there appears to be a ‘frequency shelf’ until the 200 Hz mark before another peak at -18dB at the 220 Hz mark. I would suggest that there has been a fairly narrow ‘Q’ applied to the equalisation on the kick drum given the ‘bell’ shape of the dynamic envelope. The snare is very present yet not engineered to be ‘massive’. The dynamic envelope of the performance is very controlled suggesting that the drum track has been programmed and with minimal reverb. While analysing the frequency spectrum of the drum track, it was evident there was a short spike in amplitude, upward of the 15kHz mark, with every snare hit. I could be suggested that this was the reverb placed on the snare and that some allowance had been made to not filter that section of the reverb in order to maintain ‘fideltiy’ for the entire recording.

Core Musical Elements #4 – Bass guitar

The bass guitar plays an important role in Agua De Coco by playing sporadically and allowing space for interplay between all the other musical elements. The bass has a strong presence in the lower register of the frequency spectrum of Agua De Coco and appears to present in the spectrum below the fundamental frequency of the kick drum.

Click to enlarge

The bass guitar is very present in the mix and there may also be evidence of deliberate distortion. This could very well be deliberate and was perhaps recorded ‘hot’ in order to bring the presence of the bass through the mix without it being dominant. The performance of the bass part is understated yet will push the song along by playing up the octave and accentuating rhythmic phrasing. There the placement of the bass part within the mix seems to be both very central yet not overbearing. During the bridge section, the bass player is either using an octave pedal or has a five string bass because of the ‘weight’ behind each note which is less sporadic, legato and each note is sustained far longer than in the verse section.

Core Musical Elements #5 – Keyboard (Clavinet) + Melodica

keyboard clavinet

The use of the melodica is very interesting in this track as it parallels the rhythmic phrasing of the acoustic guitar, but in terms of the timbre of the instrument and it’s placement within the stereo field, it doesn’t clash with the acoustic guitar which plays a primary role within the reference track. There also appears to be quite a large amount of reverb on this instrument because the qualities of the melodica weren’t immediately apparent until I read noted the credits for the song including a melodica (performance by Marcos Valle) and it was also mentioned in a BBC music review that was mentioned at the beginning of this case study.

The clavinet is treated quite heavily with a resonance filter so that it is less prominent in the mix and by virtue of the individual notes being blurred and less articulated. Both the clavinet and the melodica are rhythmic elements placed toward the back of the mix through both panning hard left and right and also subtle reverb is added which, allows the acoustic guitar, played by the song’s author and main performer, Marcos Valle, to take a central role in the song.


The placement of the nylon string, acoustic guitar as one of the primary instruments in the song, that makes it sound like a traditional mix of Brazilian Bossa Nova / Samba. The rhythmic pattern, played in a repetitive manner however, connects the song to its’ Brazilian roots in Bossa Nova. Marcos Valle is a recognised master this genre, yet the song also retains a freshness within the production and the complex arrangement of various musical elements that suggests dance music that looks both forward and back in time. The complex arrangement of vocal melodies, the instrumentation that moves in and out of prominence throughout the song and the compressed, polished drum programming all come together to make Agua De Coco such a fresh, polished dance track that is understated with complexity that suggests timeless songwriting.



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