Steve Reich: ‘Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Have The Right Equipment – What Matters Is Your Musical Imagination!’

This video is a profile of minimalist composer Steve Reich, in which he talks about his music, his influences, his very lo-fi ‘funky home tape recorders’ and other early gear, and his inspiration for his classic Music for 18 Musicians.

The film also includes behind-the-scenes footage of the London Sinfonietta and Synergy Vocals in rehearsal for a performance of Music for 18 Musicians. Music for 18 Musicians, like much of Reich’s work, uses techniques that he developed in his early electroacoustic music, and which have been adopted by countless electronic musicians.

Along the way, Reich has this to say about his funky gear: “Don’t tell me you don’t have the right equipment…. IT DOESN’T MATTER! What matters is your musical imagination and your ideas.”

75 thoughts on “Steve Reich: ‘Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Have The Right Equipment – What Matters Is Your Musical Imagination!’

      1. It’s Steve Reich in person who missed the point entirely here. Imagine someone saying “I’ve had huge success doing medieval music all these Techno/Radio/Classical guys are wasting their time!” Yes, nonsense. Complete nonsense.

  1. The man is right. Bach and Beethoven live immortal and never had a single synth.
    In the meanwhile, there are hoards of kids lusting after synths to the point we have the term “synthp*rn” and they’re too lazy to learn music theory, practice or write songs.
    They all sound so much the same that subgenres have been invented to classify the most minor differences between their “beats.”

    1. they also had the nicest pianos in the nicest spaces and if they were being recorded today they would have the nicest gear (or any gear AT ALL (lets not pretend this guy is any less a premadona about his gear than most professional musicians)) and people who know how to use it, but I digress lets go back to banging on rocks and recording with sonographs (actually I want to sonograph emulator plugin NOW)

      1. @Dylan:

        Bach never touched a piano in his life, Beethoven spent most of his life in poverty and what in the hell are you talking about “sonographs”? When did anybody record music with or for “sonograph”? Do you mean phonograph? Time to get a better grip on this discipline of music that appear to want to be part of.

        1. So, ten bucks, no ten millions bucks, says Bach wasn’t playing on a Hammond vst using a made in China midi controller, ok…the guy’s point still stands: They had the best available gear at that time.

        2. Many of the organs that J.S. Bach had access to, such as the two at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, were considerably more expensive than any piano. C.P.E. Bach, who Dylan could very well have been referring to, spent plenty of time with an expensive piano, among other expensive instruments. And while Beethoven lived in poverty during many periods of his life, he is known to have owned at least four grand pianofortes. Specifically, Beethoven owned a Walter, a Streicher and a Schanz for most of his life, and in his later years he acquired a Graf. Perhaps you should ease off of Dylan, chip, considering how misleading your post is?

          And don’t get me wrong. I agree with Steve Reich’s sentiment. But it would have been a lot more meaningful if it was coming from someone who built a career on inexpensive, or lo fi equipment, rather than (incredibly expensive) orchestras and later tape collages of those orchestras.

          1. Did you watch the video?

            His seminal tape works were done on crap gear and that’s where he developed his phasing technique that he used in most if his later work.

            1. Steve Reich’s “seminal tape works” WERE done with relatively low quality recording equipment… AND the expertise of Philip Glass, Steve Chambers and Art Murphy, who by then were already fairly well-established. And it wasn’t an unrelated recording of these performers that Reich later adapted for his own purposes, but something he had hired Glass, Chambers and Murphy to perform. Or maybe you’re referring to Reich’s earlier, lesser known works? When he hired Brother Walter and Paul Zukofsky to perform on his recordings? Yeah, again, I’m not disputing Reich’s underlying message, but it would be dishonest to overlook the value of the resources he had access to.

        1. inspired by this to-and-fro, i just read that bach did in fact touch an early piano, but “didn’t like it”.

          which is awesome.

      2. Bach, in particular, enjoyed the most advanced musical instrument and technology of his time – namely the pipe-organ – which furthermore is a massive additive synth. It might be wise not to underestimate his genius and interest in adopting and stretching new technology, tunings, modes of composition etc.

    2. Man, Steve Reich hit a nerve, huh? Most of those dudes were composing with pen and paper and quite a few were not appreciated or famous until well after they were dead so your “nicest pianos” theory is way off.

        1. I’m not sure being dead does anyone any good. Look Dylan, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.

          1. yeah, then in the next thread about a 50,000 dollar modular synth you’ll go nuts and bash anyone who says you can do the same sound in Thor…

            No one is a bigger gear snob than the “music theory champion”, it goes hand in hand.

            1. ” then in the next thread about a 50,000 dollar modular synth you’ll go nuts and bash anyone who says you can do the same sound in Thor”

              The word you are looking for is “Projection”.

              “Anyone”? No one has ever said that Thor can do everything modulars can, except you, and you are the only one who goes nuts and keeps repeating it in every thread about a modulars or synths that costs over $200.

              You are just so stuck up about this that you will even bring up that topic in this unrelated article while replying to unrelated comments. Are you paid by Propellerhead to keep doing that?

              1. Snobs always try to have it both ways, they argue you don’t need expensive gear just a $50,000 music education! then they turn around and say music theory doesn’t matter you just need a $50,000 studio and “creativity”. If you want to be a snob you get way more looking down your nose bang for your buck with things like Rolexes, BMWs, Yachts, etc. than music related stuff ok.

                1. You keep saying the word “snob”, but I don’t think you really know what it means : “being snob” is not necessarily about money.

                  You are totally a Thor snob, and are snobbing everything that is not Thor. You “snob” people for buying hardware which you find pricy, yet you keep talking about an app which requires a $600 machine that can only run apps.

                  You project that snobbery on everyone else, but really you are the snob here.

                  And btw, when will we have the chance to hear those extraordinary creations you did with Thor?

      1. record them? Might want to research the development of the first audio recording devices. they didn’t come round for about 60 years AFTER the death of Beethoven, or 100+ years after the death of Bach.

        The only recordings of these two were on paper.

    3. They may live immortal, but reality is that only a small percentage of their work is responsible for that. Bach wrote a lot of garbage. Beethoven as well.

      That should be the real takeaway: WRITE. Just keep writing. Nobody knows how to make a “pop” song. Everyone knows the formula but no one knows how to ignite the interest. Just keep writing. Make a new song, everyday, every week, every month… at whatever frequency you can. Don’t waste years trying to perfect one song or one album.

      Your gear doesn’t matter. Your talent barely matters. What you need to do is write your way through all the garbage until you stumble your way into something that works. Then, you may too live in infamy.

      1. no, I am just realistic about the pains of having shitty gear/lack of can be unmotivating and detrimental towards ones creativity. Composition doesn’t have to be secondary to production to acknowledge of having shit gear. My inadequacies lie as much in my own music as it does my gear because the two directly affect each-other. The workarounds in using sample libraries on shitty computers means the reiteration times are pains that directly affect my fucks given in a particular song. Same goes for Latency, noise floors when trying to bring quite parts out into the processing realm for…. my fucks given are now zero

        1. No. Just no. Boundaries induce creativity. You, sir, you are just a cheap old chap.
          You just have an old Akai 3630 Comp for 60$? Daft Punk used them and made “Homework” The TB303 was a simple bass substitute and failed, until people did something totally different from it´s actual purpose and invented a whole new genre!

          Don´t you ever tell anyone you need the best gear to come up with good and innovative music.

          1. Errr… I’m not going to get into the more passionate aspects of this convo, but I absolutely, totally agree with the phrase “boundaries induce creativity”. I have always found that limitation forces one to be creative. Heck, I remember using an electric heater’s element as a spring reverb one time… great fun. 🙂

          2. did I ever say boundaries didn’t induce creativity? trust me I am well versed in boundary induced creativity… most of my tracks are foley for christ sake

        2. if your gear gives you headaches, then just abandon it and record on a simple 4 track, or a dictahone or whatever you can get your hands on. If your friend has a better studio, then maybe ask him for help. I had a similar problem and in time found out that many times the more limitations I had, the more creative and true my music became. To my great surprise, people prefer the simplest songs I recorded in a few hours 🙂 here’s Eno on limitations:

        3. I’m sorry it all makes you feel like pulling out your hair. Its not as if some of those problems aren’t real, but they’re not constant unless you have a genuine hardware issue. I’m puzzled at the anal-expulsive complaints on here at times, because I can just sit at Logic and roll, at a frequency range so broad, my ears are surely missing some of that top end. Its about as transparent and ‘perfect’ as I could ask it to be. Essentially anyone can now scrape for a while and buy a solid mid-range-or-better hardware synth, the budget stuff often at least makes for good sound modules and the software end is sci-fi now. Sounds like you may just need to woodshed a little more. That’s the only way I got past the frustration you express. You don’t just build a rig; you also have to build a work dynamic.

    1. 303sucks – Maybe its time for you to go back to 4chan, your friends are missing you. But maybe you are one of those described here, and now gone lowlife because you didn’t have the talent.

      A lot of playing around in samplers and working on sound have been replaced by VST & Presets. Hell go over to many of their VST plugins and turn one OSC on their it and they are lost and will never find the sound again. I have seen friends buying for 1000 of dollars equipment and never make a track cause they thought the equipment would make it easier for them.

  2. I kept day dreaming about an ASR10 while he talked but when the music became louder it snapped me out of it. I’m off to ebay to buy more gear just because I was told not to.

  3. Yes…because acoustic instruments are so cheap 🙂 The most expensive synth today is cheaper than a grand piano. I agree with the message of the video but it’s quite paradoxal since today there’s people recording songs with 400$ of gear. A low price if compared to a piano or a violin.

  4. I think the message is still that if a *melody* or *harmony* is good then it is good on almost anything.

    Think of the extreme of the 8-songs-Casio-swatches in the past: the good old masters Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al all sounded good on them (disregarding that it was not a top enjoy to listen them on that).

    Some genre today is hardly more then *effects*. Yes, those effects will sound crap if not played on the right instrument and the listener will not find it “interesting” or “beautiful” .

  5. Well they might not have had a synthesizer they had the next big thing, a group of musicians an orchestra to work with everyday. People seem to forget that….

  6. My favourite thing about this website is how some will belittle “snobs” and the “elite” in the same way that makes the so-called “snobs” and the “elite” such douche bags in the first place.

  7. I’m shure Steve is extremely talanted, but I personally don’t understand his music. I think it’s very boring to listen to.

  8. You know what? You are right, I do have the right equipment, and it is my fault I am not making music, thanks for enlightening me! Now, I hope yours serves you JUST like mine serves me, you deal with electronics JUST as much as I have to, and you visit the repairguy JUST as much as I do, not a second more. Now, if this wish of mine comes true, can’t wait your next interview!

  9. you can find a whole bunch of used korg volca and used mini brutes on the net
    gear less than 2 years old and people are upgrading to new stuff that they will never use in any profitable way

    HYPE +no talent = profit

    1. I just can`t understand the hate by “that other guy”, its like saying “I hate the sound of monophonic square/saw oscillator with envelope controlled low pass filter!! I hate them!!”.

      1. It’s all about snobs and drops uttering a huge lot of crap about people and ways of doing music they never got a grasp about.

  10. If it worked out for him, fine. However, there is quite a lot of music you can’t do with the wrong gear, I want to see you theoretical snobs playing flute on a grand piano or record a concert using a speaker as a microphone, bring it!

      1. I used to record accoustic guitars with headphones because i couldnt afford good mics and it turned out to sound pretty great.

        1. I was being serious. I dropped them inside the guitar’s casing, and it gave this sweet sounding accoustic distorted sound.

  11. “It was a complete wonder” – “Don’t tell me you don’t have the right equipment”

    Anyone else noting the lack of logic between these two statements?

  12. Yeah. Here’s the thing. The premise is all wrong. Redbook CD is all you need to capture all of the audible nuances of music. While oversampling on playback has potential benefits — and even these are awfully hard to hear — these super high sampling rates on recording and these large bit depths have never been shown to provide any audible benefit and some even claim that they degrade sound quality (e.g. because the higher sampling frequencies capture frequencies that the human ear cannot hear and they are either reflected back into the audible range, increasing noise and distortion, or need to be filtered, which also has subtractive effects on the signal). This is all based on a bias that CDs sound bad. That bias is limited to older people who experienced the first generation of CDs, which sometimes did indeed sound back for reasons unrelated to the basic technology of 44 kHz / 16 bit (e.g. simply putting recordings mastered for LP, which are wildly nonlinear, on CD, earlier and cruder digital filters, cheap D/A components in consumer models). Younger folks have had access to much more sophisticated digital technology (yes, there is the odd 128 kbps mp3 choice that should never have been made), and now recordings are specifically made for digital playback. They will likely great news of the PONO with a hearty WTF????

    Get yours now, this may disappear even faster than SACD.

    1. whoops — meant to post on the PONO thread. I would delete if there was an option to do so, but I don’t see one. Apologies!

  13. I had a course-mate who started to buy synths in in less than 1-year intervals while we were still studying and continued the buy and sell-off cycle way 10 years into his professional life as a banker, losing about 50% of the purchase price on every single transaction. Every time, he was on the phone he told me what he can do with his latest piece of equipment. So I asked him; “So did you do it?” and his answer was “Got no time!”.

  14. So another “studio based” musician gets precious about equipment; the best measure as to how your “investments” are performing and whether you are using the “right equipment” is how much music you are selling.

    1. Uh, you might have missed the point.

      He was saying NOT to be precious about equipment – figure out how to do something original with whatever you’ve got. Also – Steve Reich isn’t ‘studio based’ – he’s been touring since the 70’s.

  15. I resent the ” very lo-fi ” comment as some if not all of these machine are better than most digital gear found today……

  16. He is right it is what is in your head is the hard part getting it out. In a way other people will like is what has to happen. I started on a 4trk got the feel & now run a Pro tools studio BUT it just sits till I have a good idea. I thought before I bought all this stuff I would be in the studio all the time NOPE! got to have a plan.

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