Walking into local composer Jerry Danielsen’s home studio, you’ll see a plethora of music equipment, evidence of a long career in the music industry.
With dozens of guitars and amplifiers, drums, keyboards and more, the studio has everything Danielsen would need to produce music for anything from a movie soundtrack and instrumentals for a TV show to an artist’s album or musical theater.
The plaques and posters that line the walls signify a number of those achievements over the years, including a gold record for the band Smile Empty Soul, for which his son Sean is the lead vocalist.
Danielsen, who’s been in business for more than 35 years, has seen the industry evolve, and has spent his career working to evolve with it.
“As technology progressed, there’s a little apprehension when the old ways are fading and the new ways (are coming in), but you have to embrace it if you want to keep doing it viably,” he said.
Danielsen, who got his junior high through college education in Santa Clarita, including attending both College of the Canyons and California Institute of the Arts, considers himself a product of Santa Clarita.
Throughout the years, he’s played in various bands all over town, and sometimes still does. He plays guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and even does some singing, never sticking to just one style of music, but instead, embracing them all.
At recording engineering school, he learned the principles of how to record, at a time when editing 2-inch tape machines consisted of cutting the tape with a razor blade then taping it back together.
“That’s called destructive editing because if you screw up too much you can’t get it back,” he said, chuckling.
In 1984, he started his own recording studio, Busy Signal Studios, and began writing music for some short films and television.
“There wasn’t this digital technology, so it was (done by) tape machine,” he said. “I had this Akai 12-track tape that I used for years. It was pretty cool, and it kept me in business. But, as time went on, I tried to keep up with the times … I realized how much I really wanted to know more and get more of a solid education.”
He graduated from CalArts in 1992 with a degree in electro-acoustic music composition.
“If you’re a composition student, the chances of getting a real, full orchestra to play your music is slim … but you can orchestrate using computers, and back then in the early ’90s, that was a brand new thing.”
Danielsen began using Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, and in 1995, he converted the garage of his Canyon Country home into a fully soundproofed recording studio.
By the early 2000s, he had again upgraded, this time to Pro Tools using a Macintosh. “The beauty with this is it is non-destructive editing. I can save, go to town goofing around and I can always get it back. That’s exciting.”
Over the years, his clients began to change from rock bands to singer-songwriters. Now, the possibilities are endless as he can do much of what took a band on his own on the computer.
“This is like the mad scientist realm,” he said, referring to his desktop computer with two large monitors. “When I’m in here by myself recording, it’s hard to be over there playing, and then also running the recording stuff, so as a consequence, I usually just stay here and I can play and record.”
With a plethora of different MIDI files to choose from, Danielsen has created an extensive sample library and can now swap out a drum kit or piano sample to change the sound completely at the click of a mouse.
“It’s pretty amazing the sounds that I can get,” he said. “So, sometimes I play bass on the keyboards and sometimes I play bass on a bass.”
A recent hit
Through the years, Danielsen has used these evolving musical techniques to compose music for a variety of productions, including musical theater.
After years in the making, “Steambath Blues,” a musical dramatic comedy, premiered in Ohio in November.
Back in 2016, Danielsen had been working as musical director on one of Billie Hazelbaker’s previous plays when she asked if he’d be interested in writing the music for another musical she’d written.
He composed the music for the two-act musical, making sure to include guitar and early rock ‘n’ roll in addition to the typical show tunes, as the play follows the story of seven middle-aged men unhappy with their wives.
“Some musicals don’t have a lot of guitar, specifically this one does, because it’s ‘Steambath Blues,’ so it lends itself to some bluesy kind of music,” he said. “She just let me go to town and she liked it, so that was fun.”
Danielsen begins each song with either the keyboard or the guitar and a click track, which is like a metronome. Then, he’ll slowly begin to start adding instruments, some using samples while others were recorded live.
By the end, a song will have dozens of different tracks, combining each instrument, vocal and melody to create the final product.
“I was probably in here for a couple hundred hours doing this because I wanted it to be right, you know,” he said.
The production decided to use all live musicians to recreate the music Danielsen had composed with a three-part harmony, guitarist, two keyboard players, bassist and drummer.
“With two different keyboard players, one can do violins and horns and all those instruments with samples, while the other can do the organ and more traditional piano parts,” he said. “They actually stuck to the harmonies I wrote, so that was amazing. I was very happy. It turned out to be a great success — we got standing ovations. We thought it was a hit.”
On to the next
Danielsen continues to keep busy, already working on the music for another musical, a local production called “The WaterWay” that tells the story of the St. Francis Dam disaster.
He’s also got his hand in a number of other projects, including a feature film score, co-writing with an up-and-coming singer, authoring a book, teaching music lessons and partnering in music podcasts with some fellow Hart High School grads.
For more information, visit jerrydanielsen.com.