If I were to ask you to tell me the first thing that you think of when I say the word ‘game’, what would it be?
It would probably be your favourite game, your favourite character, the game you like to play after a stressful day, you could be thinking of the graphics, the scenes, the memories you have when your friend rammed your car off the road during a GTA race, or it could be that beautiful score that plays on the menu screen.
That song that stays with you, that connects people alike together through a memorable theme tune, the music that can change your mood before the cutscene has begun, that sound that can make you terrified, when you’re on the menu for Dead by Daylight ready to try and survive from the stress-inducing killers.
Chicago native Chase Bethea has a passion for composing music for video games. Chase started composing when he was in the 5th grade. Being in advanced band and a choir group, he says helped him.
“I was in advanced band and during my practice at home on the Saxophone, I started composing melodies out of boredom from the music pieces I was learning. Melodies were coming to me often because I was singing regularly.”
The 32 years young composer said that this at first isn’t what he wanted to do.
“In High School, I was making music but since that time people told me it sounded like video game music. I took it as an insult because I wanted to make Hip-Hop beats. I never could escape the sound.”
Moving to Los Angeles with his mum in 2001, started Chase on his journey to becoming the video game composer and creative and technical sound designer that he is now.
“I wanted to attend the Los Angeles Recording School to hone my audio production skills. So, I enrolled in that school the same year I graduated High School. If I only had a more optimistic mind and I regret this still, I would have listened to the people who told me my music sounds like video game music and would have pursued it then.”
Initially going to Los Angeles Recording School to become a recording engineer, the Chicago Bulls fan, realised that after two years he didn’t enjoy everyone’s music, and that he didn’t find satisfaction in it. He met good friends and learned that what he wanted to do more about recording and production.
“Moorpark College was the best time. I have some of my fondest memories there. Here was where I began my composition journey to become a video game composer. During this time, I was basically playing catch up as well as reinventing myself. I was taking classical piano and made it into their elite applied music program. Orbie Ingersoll, Professor Song, and Mona DeCesare & Sheila Rumenapp were my most beloved professors and I am so thankful for them.”
From here he attended California State Northridge, with the intention to strengthen his orchestration skills and learn the very thing he would become passionate for; video games composition. He said:
“When I was accepted into the program, I was told that there was not a video game class for composition. For the first semester that I was there, the university did not have a video game club. In the same first semester, I searched in the computer science department, emailing teachers, through the school’s directory until I stumbled upon the ART department. They started a video game club the following semester. I joined the club immediately and became the first Game Audio Composer within the club. Even participating in the first inaugural game club game jam. I quickly became the liaison for peers in my class to collaborate with other game developers. If it was not for me, most of the composers who wanted to work on games most likely would have never known about that club during that time.”
Chase is very passionate about what he does, and you can tell this when he speaks about his favourite video games.
“My favourite video game to play is Beyond Oasis on Sega Genesis. I don’t know why, but I always seem to come back to this game and beat it faster than I have before ever since I was a child. The score was written by Kushiro, Yuzo who is famously known for writing the Streets of Rage music. I wrote a blog about my Top 50 soundtracks and I wrote a blog about some music from a game that did not get as much shine. The game is called Eternal Ring. What I love about the music for Eternal Ring is that there are congeries of different Renaissance styles in electronic/semi-orchestral form. It may not be a listener’s first pick right off the bat. The music grows on you while sneaking the main theme in the entire soundtrack. It is truly a hidden gem and deserves a deeper listen. Most people focus on melodies and swear they love them. However, most video game composers can only sing the typical “Halo” or “Super Mario Brothers” theme. Their palette is so narrow and cliche. I’m not pouring any salt on those themes but when you find music like Beyond Oasis, Eternal Ring, Hitman (2002) or Castlevania – Lords of Shadow, and it is barely referenced, it makes me wonder. I think to myself, “Are you really playing games? Are you really listening to how the music has been integrated with this or are you just listening to it out of context simply for album formality?”
The process for composing music depends on the person, it can take years to develop a masterpiece, and it takes a lot of practice for you to get your own way of doing things. Chase once again shows his enthusiasm, when he discusses his process of how he creates his work.
“It depends on the project. It can take anywhere from a month to nine years. Game Development can be temperamental and meticulous. There are lots of delays that can be caused due to scope creep, poor time management, bugs, port process, localization, etc.
“I typically have a game design document to refer to and from there I extract ideas that are not on the asset list. During this time, I mentally take notes on which sound instruments I will use that will create the appropriate sonorous world for the game I am trying to achieve. From there, I go through my composing journal and read about any techniques that may spark my creativity more. I jump to my dream audio logs (logs of music theme dreams that I have had before waking up.) Then, I sit at the Piano and begin sketching by playing around with scales and chord progressions until something resonates. After that, I record my sketches into my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), Cubase, and compose/arrange the music to where it flows compositionally. Then, I mix and master the track and test it in the game. Any revisions to the music occur after it is implemented in the game.”
The composer has composed music for games such as I Can’t Escape, a Different Color and Super Happy Fun Block, just to name a few. He was also nominated for Video Game Music online’s ‘Artist of the year – best independent composer’.
Apart from composing, Chase has a lot of other endeavours. These include writing, streaming, and some surprising hobbies.
“I decided to stream my music-making process because my friends found it fascinating. I realized this is a good promotion for myself and a good educational platform to show game developers how difficult writing music can be for games sometimes. I demonstrate my thought process and writer’s block that occurs with looking for instruments that fit and making new ones.”
“My first hobby is I refurbish Retro video game cartridges and discs as well as consoles (PS3, GameCube’s, Nintendo Entertainment Systems,etc.) Second, I like to read about business and marketing. Since I am a freelancer it is imperative, I stay up on these new practices and tools that can help me be more efficient with my day. Administration work takes up a huge majority of the time and music writing becomes less and less. Reading articles like these in my spare time helps mitigate the time I spend on it in a workday.”
The Blackhawks fan also partakes in Sound Design. The self-labeled autodidact explains what this is.
“Sound Design is the creation of making sound effects that fit animations. It brings any animation and player action to more life. If you need real-world practical sounds (like wind, birds, city sounds, etc) then you do Field Recording (taking remote recording equipment to capture the sound.) If you need in-door or action sounds you do Foley (overdub and creative layering of smash fruit to make punch sounds or dishes being picked up etc.) I’m an autodidact. There is a lot of resources and sounds for research on the Internet all ready to get started. The rest comes through listening to everything in your life around you in an indirect way, knowing how to get sound you hear in your mind out by exploring with audio effect plugins, having a grand imagination and experimenting for hours.”
What does it take to be in this industry? There isn’t a lot out there for people who want to break into video game music and composing. “Many people do not know who I am and since I do not have any representation or agencies helping me. It is me doing everything by myself,” he says.
He adds, “if you are not posting on social media or showing up to the same events your colleagues are attending then, you’re forgotten. There is a formula to getting to the bigger clients and I have not solved it yet but I am close. Thankfully, the industry is small but huge at the same time and it can allow me to do my own thing to still work on games and achieve what I want to do in the industry.”
With passion comes ambition. From being a little boy being fascinated with music, Chase has plentiful ambition.
“I want to perform my music in my local city and game conventions around the world, arrange music for orchestras to play lesser-known game titles as well perform my own, educate developers thoroughly on how to work with composers effectively, write for bigger game projects that gain notoriety, write in more music styles, sell more of my original game soundtracks and design a hardware sound unit that taps into the sound production of different eras.”
Being in the game, no pun intended, for so long, Mr Bethea has a lot of advice that he can share to people who want to get into the industry. He says:
“You have to keep writing. Like anything a substantial amount of practice is how you get better. Typically, game jams are the best exercise for this. Maybe the game continues with production after the game jam and possibly ships. Then you have another game in your portfolio.
“You have to have verve and passion. Don’t enter the industry if don’t love it because it is popular, or you think it will make you tons of money. Things in the industry will click for you right away sometimes if you’re meant for it. If not, you’ll know. Keep in mind this career is a marathon and very long one. Sometimes it will take five or twenty years before the big break happens. If sprinting is your mindset, this is not the industry for you. I would also say please do your homework the composers who worked or who are working professionally in the industry and treat everyone with respect.”
“Most importantly, stop offering to work for free to work on a game. Join a game jam! This is the only acceptable/respectable place to work on a game for free because it allows for practice and growth. Lastly, raise your rates. The rates hear and see about from new composers is too low and unprofessional to sustain a consistent and decent living and for the hard work, schooling, gear and library money we pour into. $100 per finished minute of music is unacceptable to be charging for your time. $500 -$700 per finished minute is a better beginning. If you love yourself and this industry, raise your worth and help the competition be truly competitive.”
Even if you don’t know much about this industry, you can agree that music impacts every aspect of people’s lives, whether or not we mean it to. We link music to memories, now every time I hear the imperial march I think back to the times when I was playing Star Wars Battlefront with my dad, on our PS2 when he was home from duty. There is no denying that a person with this much desire will succeed in their endeavours.
“I just want to reflect on the early days of my childhood where I would play my N64 at my grandma’s house for hours, picking up Ocarina of Time from the pen shop down the street from her house. Exploring for a place to sit down in clothing stores on Clark St. in Chicago and play Godzilla on Gameboy while my Grandmother shopped with my Cousins and Great Aunts. How I would be in my room at my Father’s house listening to Final Fantasy Legend Music via the Sound Test on my Gameboy. It’s so awe inspiring to see myself now. Even looking back seven years ago to when I had no idea about the industry but learned as much as I could in three years to have the friends I have and accomplished what I have done. Those days of daydreaming, sitting on the bed, couch or in my humble studio are difficult to have the foresight of where you will be tomorrow or a year from now but the memory, the journey and the moment, as brief as it is, will never be forgotten.”
It is only a matter of time until Chase becomes a name on every game enthusiasts’ lips, talking about his musical talent. If you would like to follow Chase, check his socials!