Hammering Out a Tune

Dan Dunlap sits in front of a keyboard in his home recording studio.
Musician and music producer Dan Dunlap returned to the area after almost 30 years on the west coast. Photo by John Altdorfer.

Dan Dunlap knows how to hammer out a tune.

This past holiday season, he composed a symphonic version of The Carol of the Bells for an Ace Hardware TV spot with an ensemble of wrenches, leaf blowers, mallets, saw blades and other items you’d find in a tool shed or, well, an Ace Hardware store. 

While he traveled to Chicago to conduct the tool time yule tune, most days Dunlap composes in the wood-paneled den of his Vernon Avenue home. 

Surrounded by state-of-the-art computer screens and soundboards, Dunlap also makes music on vintage equipment and instruments from the 1950s and ’60s. As he scores ads for Heinz, Bud Light, Geico, Gatorade and other clients, he can watch his two kids, Rosabelle and Sonny, walk home from school every day—a pleasure missing from his life as a Venice Beach, California, composer and software developer. 

A West Coast musician for nearly three decades after graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Dunlap and his wife, Danielle, decided that their family needed a change of scenery from the SoCal way of life—one that didn’t include violent crime, drug use and sub-par schools. 

“We wanted our kids to grow in a place with the kind of values we grew up with,” he says. 

Though the Dunlaps considered other parts of the country, they settled on Mt. Lebanon last summer during a visit with his parents in Beaver County. A graduate of Ambridge High School, Dunlap was a Pittsburgher at heart. But during a tour of houses in Mt. Lebanon, Dan and Danielle knew they didn’t need to look anywhere else to settle down.

“Vernon Avenue was our third stop,” Dan says. “We knew as we were leaving that this house and Mt. Lebanon already felt like home.” 

After moving nearly 2,500 miles across the country, Dunlap stays plugged into his LA connections via Zoom chats and the internet. Throughout the day he talks to his clients and partners about projects and writes pieces for ads and mood-enhancing musical interludes for movies. 

At the moment, his company, skybox Audio, is developing software that enables musicians to download various piano sounds —even a plinky toy piano—and other effects on an electronic keyboard. Called Hammer and Waves, the program saves musicians the cost and effort of hauling around a grand piano or other instruments during a tour. 

Dan Dunlap, wearing all gray, skateboards down his street in Mt. Lebanon.
One of the perks of the Dunlaps’ relocation is the opportunity to skateboard to work. Photo by John Altdorfer.

Music seems to be part of the Dunlap family DNA. His grandfather Bill was a guitar picker with country influences. His dad, also Dan, leans toward the blues when he picks up a guitar. And his sister, Michelle, keeps the beat as a drummer for the local punk rock band Murder for Girls. 

In the past, the two Dans teamed up to sing and play on a Brawny paper towel ad the younger Dunlap wrote. And a few years ago, Dunlap and his sister filled in as last-minute backup musicians for their dad. Continuing the musical legacy, Sonny Dunlap plays the trumpet in the fifth grade band. 

With a discography that includes playing bass on a Grammy-winning CD by Sting, Dunlap also toured with a band that opened shows for Weezer across the country. For this year’s Super Bowl, he recorded and produced the music for Amazon, Verizon and Vroom. As a studio musician, he’s played with performers across many musical genres. Covid, of course, put a damper on playing in public, but Dunlap says he’s visited a few area clubs to hear local music and might even put together a band in the future. 

Even though he’s enduring his first western Pennsylvania winter since high school, Dunlap doesn’t do much California dreaming, but he does admit to missing his daily surfing outings on the Pacific Ocean. These days, he says, “I grab my skateboard and ride along Vernon Avenue instead.” 

And if Dunlap ever asks you to borrow a tool or two, just keep in mind that you’ll probably be helping him hammer out some beautiful music.