Neil Diamond's 50th Anniversary Tour

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Cover Story
Neil Diamond tour photo by Ari Michelson
Neil Diamond tour photo by Ari Michelson

Stanley Miller Recounts his 49 Years with Neil

A lot has changed in 50 years of touring for Neil Diamond, save for one: his fierce loyalty to his band and crew. At the top of that list is Stanley Miller, who has been on the road with him for 49 of those 50 years. There’s no one saying that he or she has been with one artist working audio for as long, and it’s hard to image anyone topping Miller’s longevity with a single artist.

Miller is much more than an audio engineer for one of pop music’s biggest stars — in 2009 he was honored with the Parnelli Awards Audio Innovator honor, not only his work on the road, but his commitment to innovation and embrace of new technology. [See Miller’s Parnelli Documentary at parnelliawards.com.] When Miller recently came through St. Louis (my home town), I sat down with him and we talked history, this tour, and whether anybody is retiring (spoiler alert: the answer is no).

FOH engineer Stanley Miller in his element

So it’s Neil’s 50th tour, and your 49th

Stanley Miller: I will send you a playbill of the first time I ever saw Neil — it was in Des Moines. I was doing sound for a live event put on by KRNT Radio in 1967. This one included Neil. A year later I was on tour with Peaches & Herb, and he was sharing the bill with them at a little theater at the University of South Dakota. His road manager came over and ask if I would do the next show for him, and I’ve been with him ever since.

Anybody with him longer?

[Pauses] The accounting firm!

What’s your secret to not getting fired?

“Yes sir, no sir, sorry sir, right away sir!” Neil is a very loyal person. While I’m glad he’s stuck with me, it’s interesting that over the years, he’s allowed me to experiment, try new things.

Otherwise, there are a few things I learned early on. One, the check I get comes from the people who come to see him. The band is important and needs to be supported, but the people come to hear Neil. They want to hear every word clearly and distinctly. Never cover up the lead vocals, which need to be above everything else. Second, keep things simple. For example, I’ve always said that those who equalize best equalize least. I use a minimum of effects… at this point, I don’t have a single outboard effect. I just use what’s in the console and not much of that.

Neil Diamond 50th Anniversary Tour photo by Michael Weintrob

Can you talk about some of the changes through the years?

The days of being on the bus are behind us. Today all the 70 personnel fly on a chartered plane. On this tour, we have 11 trucks of gear. In the early days, we had no trucks — we’d just ship the equipment on a commercial airplane. I’d drive the truck up to baggage check-in, slip the skycap $20, and send the equipment that way. I remember once we were to play here in St. Louis days later from when I shipped it. When we arrived, I went to the airport and there were our bags of 20 or so speakers and amps, just going round and round the baggage carousel…

Monitor Recording Engineer Bernie Becker with Crew Chief Greg 'Chico' Lopez

For days?!?

[Laughs] Yes. Nobody stole it. The airport guy was like, “I knew someone would eventually pick it up!”

Your pioneering of digital is well documented, particularly with your work with Yamaha in the 1990s.

I moved to digital very early and everyone thought I’d lost my mind! But even then I tried to keep things simple and straightforward, and I think that’s important in the long run.

3 System Tech John Drane

Some still complain that it takes the “warmth” out of music.

It can. When everything is digital, it can be like a bulldozer pushing you down the road, this wall of sound. Today the technology is there, but it still can be tough to create that right sound for the artist. You can get the vocalist up on top and fill in around it… like Barbra Streisand. But with too many artists, it just becomes noise.

Any comment on trends in mixing?

A lot of times, I think people are using too much of everything [effects, etc.]. I rarely go to other shows — I don’t like crowds, it’s too loud, and they rarely play Mozart! But I went to see [unnamed big pop star]. Talented singing, but it was so muddled, and you couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It wasn’t well controlled.

Stan with FOH tech Jonathan Melton

What’s different about this tour than, say, just a few years ago.

We have a very clean stage. Everyone has IEMs and it’s all direct. When there are no speakers on stage, you have better control of things. About 10 years ago, we got rid of the last stage monitor, and I was happy about that.

Did Neil adjust to that?

Neil was the last one to go with IEMs. His biggest concern was not hearing the audience, but [monitor mixer] Bernie Becker mixes it in, and once that happened, he realized it was better for many reasons. Getting rid of the stage monitors allows us to make the hall sound better. We went through stages in the early days when it was way too loud, and to get Neil’s vocals on top of that was challenging. But with the stage clear of monitors and a properly tuned system, it’s good now.

Even in the enormous variety of halls and arenas you play in?

Every once in a while, I have to change something. But mostly, we have [System Tech] John (“Drano”) Drane. He’s been with me 28 years and is an expert at loudspeaker layout. The ability in general to get coverage anywhere is much more precise than it’s ever been.

John Denver played the [old St. Louis] Checkerdome — he freaked out when we hung the speakers! I’ve always prided myself in putting a system together that gets the best coverage no matter where we are. When I first started hanging “the flying junkyard” I had separate horns aimed in different directions to try to control what was going on. The new systems we have offer much better control. This is the second time we’ve had this system out. On the last tour, we were the first to take it out with the new waveguides in all the boxes. It just made all the difference in the world.

What speakers are you using?

It’s a JBL VTX-25-II, and it’s the best system we’ve ever had, the best of anything we’ve had on the road. We have a huge amount of power up there, like 1.2 million watts.

A bit different from the early days, eh?

When I first went out with Neil, I think I had two speakers, two 80-watt tube amps, and a four-channel mixer. No monitors at all back then, though I would sometimes have another speaker and turn it to the stage. I introduced stage monitors to Johnny Cash… but again, they can be a source of trouble.

Neil Diamond 50th Anniversary Tour photo by Michael Weintrob

I remember being in London, and we were going to play the Roundhouse. The night before we were to play there, I went down there to hear Elton John and Leon Russell. It was such a [fricking] acoustic disaster I was sick to my stomach. I had to go back to my hotel and lay down. The next night we went in there with our band and the addition of a string orchestra. We rehearsed them and I miked it, the whole time thinking it was going to be a disaster. Terrible acoustics with an installed system from a local sound company that wasn’t good. But I realized then, that the night before it was so loud because of all the stage monitors. Once we got rid of all the stage monitors, the show was perfect!

What board are you using on this tour?

Yamaha CL5 and Bernie has two CL1s. I used the CL5 on the last tour and it served us well. It’s easy to operate and does everything I need it to do. Now it has new software and it’s improved more. I wanted the PM10, but because neither Bernie nor myself had enough time to redo everything necessary to switch, and without doing that we couldn’t have taken advantage of hooking up the new Yamaha Digital Rio System. It all interfaces with Dante. I like the CL5 so much we bought it. It has 64 inputs, and I’m using under 40. And the recall on the mixer is great. When the system is working right and you can cue up the song, and channels open and close on their own… there is less mixing going on because of the recall ability. This gives me more time to listen to the music and concentrate, without worrying if the right channels and other settings are right. In the old days, you were always looking to see what channel was doing what and you couldn’t concentrate on the big picture.

Miller’s first show with Neil Diamond – Dec. 29, 1967, Kent Theater, Des Moines, IA

How many people are on stage?

Two keyboards, two background singers, two guitars, drums, percussionist, bass, and four horns. With Neil that’s a total of 14.

What mics are you using?

Almost all AKG. We like the sound of them. We used to use Shure, but the AKG dynamic was better for Neil’s voice. Over the years, we’ve tried several different things, but these sound good. The 414s are usually used for recording, but I’m using them on the overhead drums and on the horns. They have been very reliable and work every day, with a little careful handling.

Any crazy stuff going on the road like the old days?

[Pauses carefully] Sometimes we did some stupid things, but they were never that crazy. You have to remember I grew up in Nebraska! I once had bell-bottom pants, pageboy hair on the sides and bald on top. That was about as crazy as I got.

Any talk of retirement for Neil or you?

I have never heard Neil say the “R” word. As for me, I don’t know anything different. I’ve been on the road all these years. One night, Neil said on stage, “we just keep packing and unpacking” and I thought that’s what we do best! Some years ago, I told him, “If you keep going, I’ll try to keep up.”

 

Neil Diamond 50th Anniversary Tour

AUDIO CREW

  • Sound Company: Sound Image
  • Sound Designer/FOH Engineer: Stanley Miller
  • Monitor/Recording Engineer: Bernie Becker
  • Senior System Engineer: John Drane
  • FOH System Tech/PA Tech: Matt Grabe
  • FOH Tech: Jonathan Melton
  • Crew Chief, Monitor/RF Tech: Greg “Chico” Lopez
  • Stage Sound Tech: Scott Lawhead
  • P.A. Tech: Wayne “Chan” Teaster
  • Backline Techs: Peter Danilowicz (keys), Dave Wright (drums), Dave Rapp (horns), Kit Charlton (guitars)
  • Executive Sound Advisor: Sam Helms, Sigmet Corp.
  • Arch Angel Studio Manager & Archivist: Sam Cole


P.A. SYSTEM

  • Mains: (32) JBL VTX-25-II in L/R hangs of 16 each
  • Behind Stage Coverage: (12) JBL VerTec VT4886 in L/R hangs of 6 each
  • Stage Front Fill: (8) JBL VerTec VT4886
  • Out Fill/Side Fill Speakers: (64) JBL VTX V20
  • Subwoofers: (24) JBL VTX-S28 (12 per side)
  • Amplification: (96) Crown I-Tech 12000HD
  • System Control: (3) dbx DR-4800; (2) Dolby Lake LP8D8


FOH GEAR

  • FOH Console: Yamaha CL5
  • FOH Monitors: JBL LSR305’s
  • Analysis/Control Software: JBL HiQnet Performance Manager 2.3; Rational Acoustics Smaart 7
  • Signal Distro: Riedel RockNet; Yamaha DME64N


MON GEAR

  • Monitor Consoles: (2) Yamaha CL1’s
  • Outboard: Manley Mastering Slam!; Dangerous Bax EQ; dbx 160SL
  • Recording: Avid Pro Tools | HDX
  • Digital Clocking: Antelope Eclipse 384 64 bit Acoustically Focused Clock
  • IEM Hardware: AKG SPR 4500
  • Band Personal Monitor Mixers: Aviom A320’s
  • Mics: AKG D12VT, D40, D5, C414, 430, 518s
  • Wireless Mics: AKG DHT 700 series
  • D.I. Boxes: A-Designs REDDI tube direct boxes