“The Only Time I’ve Ever Lost My Temper in the Studio”–for Many Voices

Every Friday, Sounds True sends out an e-mail called Weekly Wisdom. Each of these mailings includes a “Producer’s Pick,” where we get to highlight one of our titles. Recently it was a 2-CD program I recorded with Matthieu Ricard on his book, Happiness. Even seven years later, it’s still one of my favorite recording, and most difficult.

The assignment was unusual from the beginning in that I wouldn’t be able to talk to Matthieu until we met at the studio on the morning of the recording. He was touring the States and all communication was to be through his assistant. She assured me that he would be talking about the book for almost two weeks before our day in the studio so he would be very well prepared. I decided that if we started at 8:00 am, we could record a CD by lunch, and then another before he had to leave for the airport at 3 pm.

I loved the book, but I was more excited about meeting the man. And it wasn’t only Matthieu the monk, not even Matthieu who for thirty years has been the Dalai Lama’s friend and French translator. For me it was mostly that Matthieu grew up surrounded by the best artistic and intellectual minds in post-war Paris. Matthieu’s mother—Yahne Le Toumelin—remains today an important abstract painter whose friends included Breton, Cocteau, and Stravinsky. His father— Jean-Francois Revel—was “a pillar of French intellectual life in our time” (from the jacket copy on the bestselling The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue between father and son about “the meaning of life”). So for schoolboy Matthieu, I imagined, it was not unusual to have Sartre and du Beauvior at the same dinner table as Duchamp and Tzara. He was given his first camera and taught how to use it by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

But getting to know the best and brightest in art and literature turned Matthieu toward the sciences. He studied molecular genetics at the Pasteur Institute with French Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob, but before completing his doctorate, Matthieu met some Tibetan Buddhist monks and found in them a steadier flame of what he’d first loved in less-reliable poets and painters and musicians, and now scientists as well.

A month before I was to fly out to Boston for the recording, his assistant called and told me they’d been warned by Jon Kabat-Zinn—whom they’d be staying with in Boston—that they would have to leave for the airport two hours earlier than planned because of rush-hour traffic. She assumed we would have to cancel the recording, but I still thought we could do it. I had a funny feeling that if I let him slip away the project wouldn’t happen. Let’s record an extended version of his nightly talk in real time. We could weave in some guided meditations. By the time we hung up, we’d agreed that a healthy lunch would be delivered to the studio by 12:30, and a limo would take them to the airport at one.

As I was unpacking in my hotel room the night before the recording, my phone rang. It was Matthieu’s assistant. She was calling to cancel the recording. The night at MIT had gone long and this was the only time he and Jon had alone together on this trip, and Matthieu would need all his strength for the long trip to Nepal tomorrow.

I listened sympathetically, but there was one piece that was missing from her story. “Does Matthieu know you’re canceling the recording?”

“No, but he’s my responsibility and I’m making the decision for him.”

“Okay, I totally understand. You’re doing your job. But I’m going to ask you for a favor. I’m out here already, it’s too late to cancel the studio, so there’s no need to make the decision tonight. I’d appreciate it if we waited until the morning and we let Matthieu make the decision. If he wants to record, I’ll meet you at the studio at 8 am. If he says, ‘Oh, man, I wish I didn’t have to do this,’ I’ll cancel, I promise.”

The next morning everyone arrived at the studio at the same time—Andy, the engineer; Jim, the owner of the studio; Jon and Matthieu and Matthieu’s assistant; and me. Before I could really command everyone’s attention, Matthieu and Jon were deep in their goodbyes, the owner and the engineer were in the studio getting everything up and running, and his assistant was in my face. I finally just had to call the meeting into order, beginning with a tour of the studio and introducing everyone. When I explained the role of the engineer, Matthieu’s assistant asked me, “If he’s doing the recording, what do you do?” “Lots,” I said, and turned away.

Once I’d gotten Matthieu and the engineer working together, his assistant cornered me again. Yes, the food would be delivered by 12:30. Yes, the limousine would be here and loaded and ready to roll by one. I finally interrupted her to ask the owner to get her a menu and to take her and Matthieu’s order, and I slipped into the studio, where the soundcheck was going on.

I made my usual pitch about what made for a good recording, what was expected of him, how I functioned as his producer and editor, things to be mindful of, common situations and their solutions, the options we had, what worked well and what’s more difficult, how a studio recording differed from a live talk. Matthieu listened carefully and nodded through every point. “Well,” I thought, walking away, “that went awfully well.”

When everything was set-up and we were rolling, I leaned over the board and hit the talk-back button. “Okay, Matthieu, we’re recording, but what I’d like you to do is take a moment of silence so we can all just settle down a bit before you begin. And then, whenever you feel ready—five seconds or fifty seconds from now—you can just start talking and we’ll be recording. Okay?”

I knew Matthieu was going to be a great audio author right out of the gate. He was funny, he was smart, he was lively, he knew a good story and had the timing of someone who enjoyed telling them. And what he was saying was deeply humane. I relaxed. This was going to be great.

Fifteen minutes into the recording, Andy the engineer taps me on the shoulder. “We have to stop.”


“We have a problem with the mike.”

“What do you mean? He sounds fine.”

“But we’re not listening to the microphone that’s recording. The one that we’re listening to is the one he’s speaking into. The one we’re recording with is the one in the corner.”

“How could we be hearing the wrong mike?”

“I hooked up the wrong cord.”

“But you did a soundcheck.”

“I hooked things up wrong.”

“Are you sure? Is there any way we can be certain?”

“Look at the monitor.”

“Oh, good Lord.”

I closed my eyes, and waited for Matthieu to end his sentence. Then I hit the talk-back button. “Matthieu, I’m sorry. I have to stop you. We’ve had a technical problem and we have to start over from the beginning. It’s going to take some time to get this fixed so you can just relax for a bit. I’ll be with you in just a minute. Do you need anything?”

“Just my mala,” he said, and waved it in the air.

Andy was on the phone with someone who turned out to be the owner. And Matthieu’s assistant was talking way too fast and standing between me and the studio door—we didn’t have enough time, we couldn’t record two CDs. Matthieu would be exhausted. We have to change our plans. She reminded me of my promise not to record past 12:30, of the time necessary for healthy lunch. “I promised you we wouldn’t record a second past 12:30. You heard me verify by phone the lunch and the limo. For the rest we’ll just have to wait and see.”

I turned my back to everyone and put my hand on the door knob to the studio and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and waited until I felt quiet inside. Then I opened the door and walked into the studio.

It felt completely different in here. I’d been concerned that Matthieu would be irritated or confused, but he was so even-keeled that I was suddenly afraid that being around my own angst was our biggest threat. I decided to let him think that we were switching the mikes because of a technical problem.

“So, we’ll be starting over from the very beginning,” I needlessly reminded him. “Do you think you can go back and reconstruct what you’ve said already, or do you want me to read you my notes? I’m pretty thorough with my notes.”

“Oh,” he said, “I’ll just start over.”

“It’s that easy?”

He laughed. “We’ll see.”

I looked at the clock. Almost nine. Three and a half hours. We could do this.

Matthieu started in a completely different way and after about fifteen minutes I realized he was never going to get to the stories he began with last time. But, if anything, this was an improvement on the first attempt, as if he had now warmed to his subject and situation and had thought of a better entry point. I was smiling again.

The only problem was his assistant, who insisted on constantly repeating her worries and fears and anxieties into my left ear. They were the same worries and anxieties and fears that every producer has—that I don’t have enough time, that the talent will crash and burn, that I’m going to say the wrong thing and everything will grind to a halt, that the hardware is going to fail, that I’m either supervising too much or too little, producing too little or too much, overly involved or not involved enough. I certainly don’t need someone reminding me of everything I need to forget in order to do my job.

Meanwhile, the recording was going great. Matthieu was entertaining and informative and everything flowed without coaching or interruption. We were going to make it. I felt myself begin to deeply relax.

Then, about 75 minutes into take two, the studio went black. The only light was from the panic lights above the doors. I looked to my right. The recording deck was black. I looked behind me. The whole room was black. “What the????”

“Hold on,” said the owner, “I have emergency lights that will come on in a second. The power should be on in a minute.”

“What just happened?”

“Power failure. They’re doing some construction down the street. It happens all the time.”

By then the power had flickered on again. “Are we live?” Andy nodded and I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. “Matthieu, I’m so sorry, but we’ve had a power failure and it’s going to take us a minute to get things up and running again.”

“Did we lose everything?” his assistant asks.

“No. That’s why we have a back-up,” I tell her, getting out of my chair.

Then the manager breaks the bad news. Their back-up system is a CD burner. When there’s a power outage, the back-up recording doesn’t finalize. The recording on the non-finalized CD can never be accessed—it’s useless. But Pro-Tools saves regularly, so we’ll go back and find out where it leaves off, and we can pick up from there.

“Isn’t that a DAT [digital audio tape] recorder?”

“Yes, but we don’t use it any more. We’ve transitioned to CD.”

“You don’t have a back-up generator?”

“No,” the owner says, leaving the studio to call someone on the phone.

Andy I go back to thirty seconds before the recording flatlines. When we get to the silence I say, “What? That’s impossible. There’s at least another story after that.” I go to my notes. “We’ve lost more than seven minutes of material.”

The manager has returned. “We must have Pro-Tools set to save every eight minutes.”

That’s when I lost my temper.

“Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t have a back-up generator and you use a back-up system that is useless in a power failure and this happens “all the time” and still you set ProTools to save every eight minutes, even when you’re recording live sound? And you  actually have a DAT back-up that would be fine in a power failure but you don’t use it. Even though this happens all the time?”

“It’s usually not a problem. We do voice-over work. We lose a couple of sentences.”

“Do you see any scripts in there? This is like recording Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis! Would you like to go in there and explain to Mr. Ricard that he’ll have to start over a second time because you’re too cheap to drop $100 for a fucking generator? No? Well”—and here I turned to his assistant—“part of my job is going in there and explaining what just happened in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the recording. Okay, enough! Andrew. Can you get the DAT up and running as a back-up in 5 minutes or less?”

“Yes, I just have to . . . ”

“Is it one or the other or can you do both?”

“We can do both.”

“Both is better.” Then I turned to the owner.

“James, can you help Andrew find the magic number of saves in ProTools for recording spoken word? I want it as often as possible without affecting the recording. It’s got to be less than every eight minutes.”

“It is.”

“Good. And you,” and I turned to the assistant. She was turned away from me, looking at the floor. “You asked for three things. You’ve heard me verify each one. One of those is not to record a second past 12:30. But until 12:29:59 I demand that I be able to do my job, which begins with listening to what is being said. If Matthieu is talking, you cannot be talking. In fact, if he’s just sitting there thinking about what’s he’s about to say, you can’t speak. You can only speak when I call a break.” Not allowing time for an answer I made my move toward the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to explain to the talent what’s going on and what happens next.”

Once again, I was sitting at Matthieu’s feet, staring at the carpet, frowning. I explained that we’d saved most of what we’d recorded, but we lost about the last three-or-four minutes. I was going to play the last bit back to him when we were ready and it’d be great if he could pick up where it leaves off.

I’d run out of things to say, but I couldn’t face returning to the control room. “I haven’t had this happen in nine years of doing this,” I say, dejectedly. “And this is twice in one recording. This isn’t my studio and I don’t really understand what’s happening or why and I can’t explain it, either.”

“Certainly.” He could probably sense  I was about to cry. “No problem at all, really. I enjoy these stories. As long as we have time, that’s what I’m here for.”

“Right,” I say, feigning enthusiasm. “I want to thank you for how good-spirited you’ve been about all this. It’s made a huge difference.”

“Well, it’s easier when the subject is happiness, after all.” I had to smile.

I held the door knob to the control room and took a breath. Then I entered Ground Zero.

Everyone was in a different corner of the room, with their backs to me. “Great,” I thought, and said a little prayer of thanks. Then I took my seat at the front of the room. Everyone was in their places, quietly waiting for what I would say next. I scanned the electronics. “Okay, we’re rolling. We’re sound checked? You happy? Anything I need to know? No? Okay. Both back-ups are bouncing? Good. You’re cued up and ready for playback? And we’re recording through the right microphone? Okay, sorry about that, but . . . ”

I turned back to face Matthieu and leaned over the board as if I was the captain of a ship sailing into a storm. “Okay, I’m going in. Quiet on the set.” I hit the talk-back button and tried to smile.

Matthieu was great, once again veering off in a different, richer direction instead of repeating what he’d already said. And we even finished fifteen minutes early, so we got to have a leisurely, friendly lunch with the whole crew, and I got to ask Matthieu about how Cartier-Bresson taught photography, and his childhood impressions of Picasso, and his favorite funny stories about the Dalai Lama. (“He never wakes up unless the subject is science.”) And then I was waving goodbye, feeling pretty good about everything.

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