Over the last 15 years, Christian Matthew Cullen has traveled the world recording and performing on TV, radio, arena, and theater tours with Night Ranger, Alan Parsons, David Pack (Ambrosia), Deen Castronovo (Journey), Eric Martin (Mr. Big), Henry Paul (The Outlaws), Johnny Van Zant (Lynyrd Skynrd), Kevin Cronin (REO Speedwagon), Martha Davis (The Motels), Mickey Thomas (Starship), Bobby Kimball (Toto), Styx, Vince Neil, and Winger.
He is best known for his enthusiastic and soulful playing style, as well as an uncanny knack for recreating classic and modern sounds from original recordings. His client list is equally impressive, including Disney, Google, Ford, National Geographic, and the Grand Ole Opry. We had a chance to sit down with Christian to talk in-depth about his experiences as a musician and producer.
From a musician's perspective, what was your favorite live performance?
I had just gotten off the plane from a tour of Japan with Night Ranger and straight into a rehearsal for a television taping of “Soundstage.” I was in the house band and the featured artists included Martha Davis of the Motels, Ray Parker Jr. (Yes, we played "Ghostbusters!"), Mickey Thomas of Starship, Jimi Jamison of Survivor, and the Van Zant brothers of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was totally jet lagged and we had a long taping the next day. I hardly remember the show because it was happening so fast - one take each song and we had a lot of music to get through. When we got to the Van Zant set, we played “Call Me The Breeze." The band was 15 pieces with horns and it was burning. I remember getting to the solo, being so excited and amped playing with those guys, and it sounding so good coming off the stage. I took the solo and it felt like slow motion, just feeling that moment so completely. That’s special in a live performance when everything is working and the moment takes over. Such a fun memory!
The list of top-tier artists and bands that you have worked with is incredible. What experiences stand out the most?
One of my favorites is very sentimental to me and symbolic of my journey as a musician. When I was in high school, I was heavily into synth-oriented 80’s records and classic rock featuring keyboards. My very first band did a cover of “Come Sail Away,” from Styx. I sequenced the whole middle section on a Korg O1/W FD, at least the parts I couldn’t play with two hands. We played a local battle of the bands with that as the closing song and the judges were blown away. I’m convinced we won based on that song, especially because Styx was from Chicago as we were.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I was on a gig called “World Stage” I do every year with Jim Peterik of Survivor / Ides Of March. I’m in the house band, and we play behind other classic rock icons to make it a “show of hits.” When I got the song list email that year, I scanned down the list and at the very bottom - there it was: Dennis DeYoung - “Come Sail Away.” Then it hit me - the realization of my 15-year-old dream to be on a stage as a professional with musicians that I looked up to and respected. This time I was able to really go after the sounds. Here is a clip of playing through the solo section of “Come Sail Away” just after sound designing and programming my splits:
Jim had sent this video over to Dennis and Dennis replied - “…Is that what I played on the record ?!?! I don’t even remember …” hahah. Being on stage with him was pure joy - a moment that connected the dream of where I wanted to go in my life, and where I had arrived years later, all in that moment.
There are so many awesome credits in your production portfolio. Tell us about your favorite sound design projects:
One day I got a call to work with National Geographic and Bleeding Fingers Music (Hans Zimmer’s collective of composers). Bleeding Fingers had recently scored a film by National Geographic called “Symphony For Our World,” which showed wild animals in their natural habitat. Very moving and captivating stuff. They were now incorporating this into a live touring symphony show, set to the film, and they needed someone to take the score and sound design, and program patches for a number of synth, sound design, FX and exotic instruments in Apple MainStage, as well as build the rig for the live players. There were probably 100 or so patches and cues. Then I found out they needed everything programmed and the rig set up in six days for the first show! Initially, this was a shock and I was questioning if I should take the gig. Then I remembered that these are the opportunities that take you to the next level in your journey - when you are pushed outside of your comfort zone and have to deliver. I secretly love these opportunities. I agreed and got to work.
Bleeding Fingers sent me the score and screen grabs of their Logic sessions so I could see the effects chains and some instruments they used. A lot of the patches I had to make from scratch, such as a Moog that was used as an arpeggiated bass with a filter slowly opening to underscore a wolf on the hunt. Whatever sounds I made that the gig didn’t have the equivalent soft synth for, I had to resample the patch in MainStage Auto Sampler and map into splits across the keyboard, i.e.: Moog bass in the left hand and hammered dulcimer in the right. Working from the score was helpful to quickly program the patches sequentially. I delivered the show in four days with performance notes and the client was thrilled. The rehearsal and tour went off without a hitch. It was such a wonderful opportunity to push myself on a quick turn, and utilize aspects of my career from being a player, synth programmer, sound designer and being able to read a score from years as a session player.
What are your go-to Cherry Audio instruments? Any tips and tricks for our readers?
So far, I’ve been using DCO-106, Eight Voice, and now Memorymode on a number of post-production scores, as well as on overdubs on a record I’m producing for an artist. Junos often are my go-to synth for pads and Cherry Audio's DCO-106 covers that beautifully. Eight Voice gives me beautifully complex textures reminiscent of the early Prince SEM stuff - huge fan of that. The Cherry Audio stuff is brilliant. Having been a sideman to a number of 80’s artists and being a fan of 80’s records and production, I always wanted to know how those synth textures were created and what synths made those sounds. I became obsessed with sound design and recreating those sounds, which helped me stand out as a keyboard player and sideman.
If I were to start with sound design all over again, I would start with a Juno (DCO-106) and become really familiar with how it works. I learned so much about synthesis from the simplicity of that synth. Also, don’t be afraid to use presets as a launching point. Often when I am working on a quick deadline for TV stuff, I’ll pull up a preset on DCO or Eight Voice and then tweak parameters to arrive at the sound I’m hearing in my head. Map the filter to a knob or fader on my Novation, and now I have something unique to layer in a production in a matter of seconds. The Cherry Audio instruments are beautifully modeled and give me the feel of working with hardware with the extra benefit of banking all my new sounds for future productions.
Any live music gigs in the planning stages or studio projects you are currently working on?
I left Night Ranger in 2010 after a five-year run with the band. It was such a great experience playing arenas with Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx, and many of the great classic rock bands of all time. It was a hard decision to make, but I knew in my heart I wanted to have my own clients and build a name for myself as a composer, producer, and sound designer. These days, I’ve developed my repeat clientele enough where it keeps me off the road and in the studio, which I much prefer now that I have a family. There are days I miss the rush of playing live, but I am really enjoying this season of life.
There is a one-off show I do every year that I have been doing for 22+ years with Jim Peterik (Ides Of March / Survivor) called “World Stage.” Jim gave me my start in Chicago as a session player and playing in his house band as a sideman, backing up so many great artists such as Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Joey Molland of Badfinger, Dennis DeYoung of Styx, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, and so many other iconic musicians and artists. Since the beginning, these people have become friends and family to me, and I always make time to shed the music, sound design all the synth patches as closely to the record as humanly possible, and enjoy the energy and spirit of lifelong friendships and music. It’s very special. Can’t wait to use the Cherry Audio stuff live on that gig this year!
In the post world, I work closely within a collective called "Chop & Hue" out of Michigan. The projects change from day to day, and the clients are always new and different. I’m usually composing, adding sound design (sound effects), and mixing to picture daily on quick turnarounds. I get asked to play keys and add additional production on records quiet often, and work on producing artists when I get a chance and my composing schedule allows.
I'm also launching a sample company in the next year called "Sounds Famous" - recreating famous patches with painstaking detail for Apple Mainstage and Native Instruments Kontakt. Here is a little teaser:
Follow Sounds Famous on Instagram
Where can our readers find more from you?
Editor's Note:On behalf of the Cherry Audio team, thank you Christian for sharing your live gig stories, studio session experiences, and most of all, your veteran advice for our readers.