How Do You Remix Australia’s Most Famous Indigenous Band?

Tech geniuses Phil K and Danny Bonnici know

Words: Andy McGirr

Ask those in the know about Australia’s most tech-savvy DJ and they’ll point to Melbourne-based Phil K. Ask Phil K to name one of his tightest studio brothers and he’ll point to Danny Bonnici.

Phil is one half of Lostep with Luke Chable, while Danny came to international acclaim as part of Nubreed. They are Australia’s revered electronic producers and together in the studio they pack a punch as Analog Stars and Digital Stars.

But their biggest challenge came when they were called upon to remix Yothu Yindi tracks created by Australia’s most famous indigenous band. The lads get their geek on for iamCrü…

When did you get started in music production and what equipment did you use back then?

Phil: “We started in the mid ’90s with a room full of equipment such as a Juno106, SH101, JP8000, NORD Lead, some Roland rack stuff like the JV1080, an AKAI S1000 sampler, Atari computer with Notator, a Mackie mixer and a bunch of Alesis outboard FX.

“Everything got sold as soon as the Apple G4 came out and we went completely software. We were completely software for a few years before most people caught on. I remember people asking me in those days what equipment we were using and they couldn’t get their heads around my answer, which was simply ‘a computer’. That progressed to laptops in the touring years and we’re now back to using hardware as it feels more natural and it’s way more fun to play with real instruments.

What does your studio consist of now?
Danny: “In our main room we currently have a Novation Peak, Oberheim Matrix 6R with Matrix Cltlr, Roland JD-XA, Moog Sub37, Elektron Analog Keys, Roland System1 M with modules, Soundcraft MTK 22 mixer, which has 22 inputs over USB, Ableton with Push 2 and lots of little odds and ends, and friends’ synths that are always in and out of here.

“We also use an ERM multiclock, along with a Roland SBX1 and an iConnectMIDI4+ to keep rock-solid timing between the computer and hardware. There is also a ‘drum station’ area. This configuration allows us to jam like a band and capture our performances to edit later.

What are your go-to instruments, synths or drum machines?
Danny: “Novation Peak, Sub37, Oberheim Matrix 6 and Analog Rytm MkII.”
Phil: “Pioneer SP16, Roland SE02, Novation Circuit, Roland TB03, Samplr iPad app, Korg Gadget app and Paul’s stretch software.”

What’s your process for getting the initial idea down for a track?

Phil: “Believe it or not, some projects start as ideas in Korg Gadget on iPad or other apps, like DM1. What I like about using an iPad is that it’s generally always around and sometimes things can happen in ten minutes of mucking around that never happen in hours in the studio. Obviously some things like bass or some drum sounds get switched out when it’s time to get serious, but all in all, most sounds are kept and processed more in the DAW.

“I will generally bounce stems out of the iPad, put them into the Pioneer SP16 for processing – the SP16 has a sound that I love – and keep adding stuff or editing. Once I’m happy with what I have I take the SP16 into the main studio, eight outs from the sampler into the mixer and off we go.

“If the idea started as a bunch of samples from some CDs or vinyl, it’s the same process – sampler, sound design, then main studio.

Do you approach the mixing aspect as you write or do you prefer to address the mixing stage separately once the producing/arranging tasks are complete?
Danny: “We generally mix as we go, then leave it for a couple of days, come back and make adjustments to the things that stick out in the first five minutes of listening back with fresh ears.”

In terms of insert processing, what would you normally apply to drum hits, basses, synths, etc?

Danny: “For synths we use the UA Emperical Labs Fatso and the UA SSL Bus compressor. For EQ we use the UA Magg 4 and UA Studio D Chorus. To warm things up we tend to go for the UA AMPEX ATR102 Tape plug.

“For organic sounds that need processing we like to use the Output Movement plug, NI Modular effects and good old fashioned cutting and pasting with reverbs and delays.

“For bass we turn to the UA LA2a; for reverbs the UA Lexicon 224, UA EMT 140 plate reverb and UA AMS RMX16; and for delays it’s the Live 10 native echo plug and UA Galaxy Tape echo.”

Tell us how you approach sound design to get those rich timbres in your productions?
Danny: “We mainly use our hardware these days for sound design, and each piece of equipment has its own flavour and strengths in which we call upon for the job at hand.

“Heavy manipulation of sound needs to be done in a way where it sounds natural and feels like it was meant to be that way. This can be achieved in so many ways, whether it’s layering synths, splitting the harmonies in the layers, adding lots of verb and delay. I find the deeper I dig the more it can sing and the sound often turns into a beast of its own – alive instead of static and boring.”

Tell us about your involvement with Yothu Yindi and the Treaty Project

Phil: “Yothu Yindi and the Treaty Project is a conceptual band featuring some original members from the legendary Australian indigenous band Yothu Yindi, DJ Gavin Campbell and a bunch of musicians and performers. We acted as remixers, producers, engineers and technical advisers.

“Initially, Danny and I were called in to remix and to create a new backing track of Yothu Yindi’s biggest selling record, Djapana – and told to make it rock a festival but with no multi-track audio to work from!

“The plan was to create a remix that stayed true to the original and that the band could still play. We proceeded by sampling some parts of the original track, then built the track around those samples and an acapella from a US 12” that we sourced on Discogs. Luke Chable and I had to do the same with another of their records, called Tribal Voice, but that time we had multitracks.

“As the project went on and bookings for the project started coming through, we needed to get more remixes done so I farmed out of a bunch of mixes to Jack D’Arcy, aka Aybner, who remixed World Turning, and Luke Holder – a crazily talented 13-year-old from Melbourne – teamed up with Nubreed and remixed Timeless Land.

What happened next?

Phil: “Once we had all the mixes in we had to figure out a way to get this show on stage and performed. Danny compiled all the multitracks for the entire show, taking out what was going to be played by the band and the singers’ parts, while my role was to load all the electronic elements onto the Pioneer SP16 sampler and bounce down what was left to a 16-track multi to be loaded onto a Cymatic Audio LP16.

“Danny then had to master all the multis so that every track was at the same volume and also render 2-track masters of all the tracks as backing tracks, to give to Gavin Campbell and I as back-up if the multitrack player failed.

“When this was done I loaded all the electronic elements of the tracks onto a Pioneer SP16 – one scene for every track. ‘Scene 1’ on the SP16 was ‘track 1’ of the show and so on. I took the liberty of adding extra production on each of the tracks so each performance could have different elements every night.

“At this stage I had a massive problem – how to sync the sampler with the Cymatic Audio LP16 multi-track audio player, which has no MIDI clock. It took me a couple of weeks of thought but the solution was elegant in its simplicity. We took the rendered 2-track backing masters, which were identical to the 16-track multis but bounced to a stereo file, and loaded them into Pioneer’s Rekordbox where they were gridded by the software with precise BPM information.

“On stage, we used a LAN cable to sync a CDJ2000NXS2 to the SP16. The SP16 then clocked to the grid information coming from the Rekordbox analyzed 2-track masters from the CDJ. I set the cue points for all live tracks on the CDJ on beat-5 (bar-2, beat-1), so with the pitch at 0% if Gavin pressed play on beat-5 of every track – while auditioning in his headphones to make sure he has the exact same BPM – he could keep the CDJ channel muted, allowing the multi-track audio player to play live, and have a completely synced sampler to the multitrack! The bonus of this set-up is that if the multitrack player goes down, the backing track can still come from the CDJ on stage.”

What were the shows like in the end?

Phil: “The shows were quite amazing – an incredible fusion of the most ancient of musical instruments – the didgeridoo and clapsticks  – with the most modern and everything in between. I went to see the show on the steps of the Opera House in Sydney, and it made me quite proud – a career highlight.” 

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