Industry’s Got Talent: Robert D’Addario Born with Groove in His Heart

Published: May 2, 2017

Years ago, Deee-Lite sang “Groove is in the Heart,” riding that wave to the top 5 on the Billboard charts in 1990. For Robert D’Addario, managing director and president of Cleerline Technology Group LLC., Deee-Lite couldn’t have been more on point.

Coming from the famous D’Addario music family– whose brands include D’Addario Strings, Evans Drum Heads and Planet Waves– Robert was literally born into a musical environment.

Growing up in a home that nurtured his personal interests in music, Robert gravitated to classic artists, singing and the drums.

Finding inspiration in the drumming of The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and Stewart Copeland from The Police, Robert developed a style that focused on groove and “the pocket,” rather than the gymnastic styles of Neil Peart of Rush or Keith Moon from The Who.

Taking some time out during a business trip to discuss his influences, his musical training and how to capture a good drum sound on record, Robert says recording drums is a whole separate topic unto itself.

You come from a famous music family. Coming from that background, were you immediately immersed in music and motivated to learn and play music because of your environment?

My parents both sing and played guitar, and my dad actually got his bachelor’s degree in music education. I grew up with my dad taking the guitar out after dinner every night and they would sing while me and sisters cleaned up the kitchen. There was always music around, but overall my parents really just provided the opportunity—there was never pressure, never an obligation to learn a specific instrument etc.—and there were always school obligations to play instruments in band or orchestra.

However, I would say having my parents always playing music it was more of desire to participate and contribute. When I was in in high school, my parents were usually the life of the party at dinner parties, the standard Friday, Saturday or Sunday night included an amazing dinner with our neighbors and my dad having the guitar out with a couple of his friends after dinner with everyone singing along to the Beatles or other 1960s era music he loved to play. It was a very inclusive environment and one where we learned truly the value of music in our lives. That environment certainly enabled my desire to play music, but I wouldn’t attribute to it being because we made musical instrument accessories. It was really my parents’ love for playing and enjoying music.

When you were young, was it intimidating as a member of the D’Addario family to play, knowing the company endorses some of the top people in music?

Never. Music and playing music should never be intimidating. I certainly grew up around some of the best musicians in the world, but they were people to us, their talents, their work was to play music, and in general most of the best musicians I had the chance to play with or hang out with growing up were supportive and encouraging. Music is fun; music in my mind is one of most sincerest forms of communicating and socializing. One of the best ways of learning how to play music is to play with people better than you, and I would say for the most part having opportunities where you’re way over your head might be intimidating up front, but those very people that are better than you recognize that they were once in your shoes and it always quickly became fun and exciting

Did you take drum lessons as a kid?

I did. I seriously picked up the drums when I was about 12 years old. I started playing along with music on a beat-up drum kit that barely had parts enough to play. When my dad recognized that I was committed to learning how to play the instrument, he fixed that kit up, and he had one of his employees who happened to be a very good drummer give me lessons once a week. I learned a lot from that person, but it definitely was in his specific vain of playing music. Once the fundamentals were established I ran with it. I did end up taking more serious lessons later on when I was in music school at DePaul University, but I would say 70 percent of my drumming skill comes from listening and playing what the music is asking for.[inpagepromo]

Growing up who were your influences? Do they include the typical John Bonham, Neil Peart, Keith Moon, etc.?

I would definitely say my influences were not the norm. Don’t get me wrong; I think the world of the drummers you’ve listed, but that’s not where I started. First and foremost, Ringo Starr was a primary influence. From there, Stewart Copeland from the Police. [Session drummer] Matt Chamberlin became a huge influence later on and Carlos Vega, who was James Taylor’s drummer for years, were influences. Today I would say I connect most with [Toto’s] Jeff Porcaro, even though he literally died around the time I started playing music, or [The Band’s] Levon Helm. Their playing styles have always been first and foremost about the groove and the right part for song.

In general, I always say there are two types of drummers in the world. One isn’t better than the other. One would be a drummer’s drummer; you really listed those that would fall into that arena. The second is a musician’s drummer. I was just watching an interview of Jeff Porcaro yesterday where they asked him if he’d ever taken a solo with Toto, and he said he couldn’t recall ever taking a solo. That’s my kind of drummer. It was never about the chops, more about the feel, the part and how the playing fit with the music.

Are there any drummers today that you listen to? What makes these guys compelling to listen to?

My music collection is rather stale, and I tend to lean on the older guys a little more. Not to say that there are excellent drummers currently playing; I just haven’t dug into them as much. In some ways, that is probably a product of my musical habits these days. When my first son was born, I picked up the guitar. I could always sing—in fact I got into music school via my voice—but I wanted to replicate what my parents gave me growing up, so the past seven years, I’ve become a reasonably capable guitarist. I will take out the guitar every night after dinner and learn new songs and sing and play for my family.

Were you in bands when you were younger? Did you play out often?

I started playing in bands when I was in 7th grade. My first band was with my parents and couple of guys from work playing the Christmas party each year. My mom on bass, my dad on guitar, that started when my parents held a couple of summer parties where they got their bands from high school and college back together.

In 8th grade I started a band and we rehearsed in the garage. It was called “Rush Hour,” and we played the talent show each year, but all of the guys in the band were older than me. By the time I was a senior in high school with a car, I played with two different groups. One was a bunch of college graduates from NYU called “Sound Advice” we played all over N.Y. Metro area and the Eastern Seaboard. The second was a wedding/event band where I actually made some pretty good money. The band “Sound Advice” actually was approached in the summer between high school and college by Warner Bros. for a record deal. That was big deal, and it presented a difficult decision where my dad leaned on some of the professional musicians he knew to convince me to go to school. It worked; I went to school.

In and after college I played “professionally.” There was a year or two where I would cram all of my classes into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday so that I could play gigs Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in town and out of town.

I was in a band called Jamestown out of Chicago, I got to play all over the Midwest and even out to the East Coast on occasion. I figured out during that time period that it really didn’t matter how good you were, there was a right time, right place bit of luck to being successful. We produced records, played high-profile gigs; we were offered record contracts, and in general ran a profitable business as a band. All told, I think we sold between 30,000 to 50,000 records over the course of 2-3 years. It was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of hard work, sleepless nights and sleeping on concrete floors, fast food, etc…all it took its toll.

How about today? Do you get to play in a band?

Running a business, flying around the world regularly and having a family with two kids doesn’t really align with playing music at the level I was accustomed to. It is very difficult to give the level of commitment necessary to really do it properly. I still play, and as I mentioned I play music almost every night when I’m home. I get to sit in with the Drunk Unkles each year at InfoComm, and D’Addario holds company jam sessions a couple of times a year. Each year we also have over 15 bands made up of company employees get up and play at the Christmas party. D’Addario actually rents out the Westbury Space on Long Island each year for that party, which is a pretty large music venue. We all get up on stage and play a couple of tunes, truly one of the highlights of year.[related]

My goal in the long term is to play more music, more regularly. Hopefully when I reach my 50s, when my kids are off to school, I can slow down a little bit and make the commitment necessary to either start a band or join one. But currently building a business and providing for my family is the priority. Many of my college friends have gone on to be very successful musicians they are always telling me, when I’m ready to give them a call. We’ll see if they answer that call …

In your opinion what’s the key to be a good drummer? Is it staying in the pocket like John Bonham and Phil Rudd from AC/DC or is it having chops like Marco Minnemann, Vinnie Colaiuta, Steve Smith, etc.?

As I mentioned, I grew up singing at the table, listening to a wide range of music and playing along with music. I can also sing and play drums, so my philosophy as a musician’s drummer has always been to listen to where the music is going, making sure to not step on the vocal or the melody with a fill or complicated figure—and above all making sure the pocket is big enough for everyone to feel super comfortable. What is also the undercurrent there is the idea of working together to create a musical experience. I actually take that into my work regularly—the idea that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and that working together makes us a lot more successful in achieving our goals rather than having one or two superstars that take the spotlight. I’m more of a Beatles guy, compared to a Rush guy in short.

As president and managing director of Cleerline Technology Group, do you have time to practice?

Yes and no. It is challenging to say the least, but I try to keep up my chops as best as I can with the limited time I have. My five-year-old is taking drum lessons, so I’ve been hitting the practice pad with him, refreshing some of the rudiments that tend to get pretty rusty. Playing time and keeping up is one thing, but playing at the level that I know I’m capable of is far away. It would take one to two hours a day for a couple of months to get there, and of course nothing compares to playing gigs. But all-in-all drumming is just one way I connect with music, as mentioned I play guitar now and sing; my vocals have gotten a lot better, and I will actually call myself a guitarist from time to time, I can hold my own. So that is my primary connection to music at this stage of my journey.

Can you tell us about your current drum kit? What drums are you using? What cymbals are you using?

I’ve been talking about getting a new kit for years. I have a very large kit that really was never designed to be set up all at the same time. Basically doing session work, and having different requirements for the diverse music I was playing I built a drum kit that gave me a ton of flexibility. It is Drum Workshop (DW) kit circa 1995-98 so all Keller Shells, and the range of drums is because not all of the pieces were built at the same time. It includes 8×7 inch, 10×8 inch, 12×9 inch, 14×10 inch, 15×13 inch toms, two kick drums: 18×16 inch and 22×18 inch; three snare drums—a Noble & Cooley 14×4.5 inch, Ayotte woodhoop 14×5 inch, and a custom built 12×8 inch Soprano. For cymbals I have nice collection, some with stories associated with them. I have three rides—21-inch Zildjian Constantinople K  Prototype, a 20-inch K Constantinople Prototype both of which I won in a bet with Paul Francis head of product development at Zildjan almost 20 years ago at a bar at a trade show. I also have a 20-inch Zildian K Custom Dark ride.

I have two crashes: a 15-inch Zildian K Custom Dark Crash and a 17-inch Zildian K Custom Dark Crash. I have 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch Zildian K Custom splashes, as well as a 20-inch Zildian K Constantinople Swish, a 22-inch Constantinople Flat ride, and a 22-inch Paiste Signature Flat Ride.

I don’t use all of this equipment all of the time. It’s kind of like a set of tools; you need the right tool for the right job.

Why is it so hard to get a good drum sound when recording? What are some of your favorite drumming records in terms of the drummer and the sonic qualities of the drum sounds?

Wow, I could write a dissertation on this topic, and actually I think I might have in college. That is a deep question. There are so many variables to recording drums; the topic is so misunderstood these days mainly because people don’t go through the training and practice that you would’ve had to go through 20 to 30 years ago. First and foremost, all instruments are affected by the room they are recorded in, but drums are especially challenging because close mic’ing a drum set means that you are going to have the same sounds entering different microphones at different times.

There are different classes of instruments, and with many instruments a single microphone or a stereo array does the trick, but with drums you might have 10 microphones all pointed at various parts of the set, each a different distance away from the source.

Microphones are dumb devices; the overhead mic doesn’t know you have a mic on the kick, you can’t tell it to ignore that thumping sound—nope—the biggest enemy to a good solid drum sound is phase. Sound waves out of phase cancel each other out, so if it takes five times as long to get from the kick to overhead vs the kick to the mic buried on the front head, and with all of this going on there is a good chance much of the material will be out of phase.

When you mix the mics together, they will start to cancel each other out. The best engineers I have ever learned from or worked with knew how to manage the distances mics needed to be in relation to each other to reduce the effect of phase.

The irony of this whole close mic’ing methodology is that a drum set actually has an overall sound. You don’t listen to a drummer with your ear up against the kick drum; the whole instrument vibrates … there are resonate tones throughout the whole kit. A floor drum by itself sounds completely different than one as a part of an entire drum kit. I personally like less mics, a looser sound, from a drummer’s perspective that is what we’re used to hearing and feeling.

The second part of question—albums or recordings I truly love for their drum sounds. Well I tend to gravitate to the old recordings where there might be three or four mics total on the drum kit, one on the snare, one on the kick, and two overheads.  That is generally how I prefer to record my own kit. I like the openness and the totality of the instrument instead of getting too caught up in snare, kick, cymbals or toms. I think one of the coolest recordings that I always go to as an example of an awesome rhythm track is off of Bob Dylan’s “Time out of Mind.” The track is “Can’t Wait” and it’s the 10th cut on the album. This album was recorded by one of my engineering, producing idols Daniel Lanois. On this record they recorded in an old theater in San Francisco. This track in particular has two drummers playing live together with one stereo AKG Acoustics C24 condenser mic capturing both drummers.  One capsule is pointed at one drummer the second capsule is pointed at the other drummer. I remember reading up on the production of that album, it blew me away, the sounds they were able to get, the overall vibe, it is a thing of beauty.

If you could play with any bass player and guitar player, who would you like to play with?

Oteil Burbridge on bass, Blake Mills on guitar, probably each in the top five for their instrument in the world.

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