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Sandy Dillon’s monitor world on NBC’s The Tonight Show

For over five decades, The Tonight Show on NBC has dominated late-night television. One of the integral aspects of the show has always been music, with a killer studio orchestra and steady stream of famous and breaking guest artists. The current house band, led by bassist/composer Rickey Minor, has been in place for about 15 months.

For the past 15 years, the man running monitors for the show’s musicians has been Sandy Dillon. With an 11-piece band in a studio seating just under 400, minimizing the SPL from the stage is a critical element in creating great sound for both the broadcast and the studio audience. An obvious solution is the use of in-ear monitors (IEMs) instead of floor wedges for the musicians.

“When the current house band came in, initially we thought we would be going with all in-ears,” Dillon said. “In fact, we bought a bunch of Shure PSM 900 units to use for them. We had about a week of hiatus to put everything together, but after a couple days of rehearsals, it was apparent to both me and Rickey Minor that not everyone was comfortable with that.

“So Rickey made the decision that we would talk to each musician individually and do what they were most comfortable with. Because if the musicians aren’t comfortable, that can affect the music.”

As a result, the band is now sporting a range of monitoring solutions, including both wireless and hardwired IEMs, augmented by Clair 12AM floor wedges.

“Some players are strictly on in-ears, some have wedges with subwoofers,” Dillon said. “In addition, every member of the band has a single ear mix that has Jay Leno’s dialogue, plus send from the director and the AD giving them time cues. I can also add a click track to the mix when the band needs one.

“That’s all done with a single channel of Sennheiser G3 IEMs since there’s no need for individual mixes. It’s like an enhanced IFB with better audio. We also use the G3 for the horn section’s in-ears.”

In addition to the sheer size of the house band and the varying needs of guest artists, the fact that in-ear systems are stereo means that monitor world at The Tonight Show is extremely channel-hungry. To handle it, Dillon uses a Studer Vista 5 digital mixing console, which provides 20 stereo Aux outputs (40 channels) along 40 more mono Aux sends, with the flexibility to change their deployment with ease.

To accommodate key band members and guest artists who do use in-ear monitors, Dillon recently added eight channels of Shure’s new PSM 1000 to his arsenal.

“I had the opportunity to beta test the system with our guitar player, Paul Jackson Jr.,” Dillon said. “Shure has done a great job with the 1000. The RF is stronger, and they sound great. I really like the stereo imaging. I started using them a couple months ago, and they have performed perfectly.”

The PSM 1000 offers several features that are critical to success in an RF-intensive environment like NBC Studios in Burbank. The bodypack receivers sport twin antennas for diversity reception. In combination with the system’s 72 MHz tunable bandwidth and advanced RF filtering, the PSM 1000 offers exceptional stability and up to 49 simultaneous frequencies.

Frequency coordination at The Tonight Show is handled by Soundtronics, which designed the antenna system and provides the frequency map needed to accommodate the vast array of wireless microphones, IEMs, IFBs, PLs, and other RF sources in use. For visiting bands, Soundtronics provides Dillon with a list of frequencies that can be used to meet their requirements.

From Dillon’s perspective, it’s all about operational reliability.

“The PSM 1000 has helped a lot,” he said. “The new RF filters are great. We can pack frequencies a lot closer than I would have been comfortable with previously. The other feature that I love is something called Cue Mode.

“That enables the monitor guy to program all the frequencies in use onto one beltpack, so you just hit a button and switch between them. It’s a really clever feature and saves a lot of time.”

Three of the PSM 1000 systems are in use nightly, for Tonight Show Band lead vocalist Dorian Holley, guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. and percussionist Kevin Ricard. The remaining systems are dedicated to visiting bands, and for the guest solo artists who occasionally join the band.

“I’ve used the system on guest artists like Ben Harper, David Cook and Javier Colón, winner of The Voice on NBC,” Dillon said. “They all loved it.”

Bandleader Rickey Minor also wears a lapel microphone that fulfills a dual function, allowing him to speak both on-air with host Jay Leno and to communicate directly with all the band members.

“Paul Whitman at ATK Audiotek in Valencia helped us with that,” said Dillon. “They got Rickey a footswitch device that changes his mic between the on-air feed and the guys’ ears. That lets him change songs, give direction, or whatever he needs in the course of the show.”

Optimizing the music monitor mix for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno is a process of constant evolution.

“Right now, we’re beta testing another in-ear unit, the Quadra from Lectrosonics,” Dillon said. “It gives the artist four channels of signal, so I can give a full stereo mix, plus separate channels for, say, the vocal and reverb. That gives the musician a lot of flexibility to hear exactly what he wants.

“The only issue is the extra knobs; some people might get confused. But, I’ve got one guy testing it now, and he loves it. It’s another great piece of technology, and a really great option to have in your complement of tools.”

One thing that’s very clear in speaking with Dillon is that The Tonight Show is strictly a brand-neutral environment. Rather, every effort is put into creating the best sound quality in live television.

“We have a powerful band full of incredible musicians, and our job is make sure they sound great on the air,” Dillon said. “That starts with making them comfortable, which means giving them the monitor sound they need, with no fear of failure.

“We use whatever equipment is best for the job. That’s my guiding principle, and probably the reason I’m still here after 15 years.”v