Chase Bethea: pursuing video game composition after being told it's his calling for years
"I'd been told that the music I was creating sounded like it should be in a video game [since] 2001; it was never accepted for the genre that I was trying to produce it for. So, it was in 2009 [and] I was like you know what, we're going to do this."
Photo of Chase Bethea, provided by Chase Bethea
Chase Bethea is a freelance composer, sound designer, and audio engineer for video games and other media. Graduating with an AA from Audio Engineering from Los Angeles Recording School in 2007, Chase finished his AA in Music Theory and Composition from Moorpark College in 2015, and his BM in Media Composition from California State Northridge in 2017 with all honors.

The composer won Best Music in Motion Graphic and Poetry Award (2010), and his score from the successful flash horror game I Can't Escape received an honorable mention in the Indie Game Magazine (2013). Chase was also nominated for Artists of the Year — Independent Composer by VGMO in the entire industry (2016), and signed publishing deals with Sumthing Else Music Works and Materia Collective. His music has been featured on multiple podcasts such as Pixelated Audio, Video Game Island, 8bitx Radio and streamed on Spotify, Pandora, Deezer and others.

Chase wasn't looking to become a video game composer. Studying at Los Angeles Recording School as an audio engineer, he landed a job at an internet media company, Vlaze Media Networks, three months before graduation. "During my time there I had a myriad of job titles — I was hired initially to be a live sound engineer, [but I soon] became a front of house engineer," the composer remembers, explaining that this isn't usually possible until you're 25, or at least that's what everyone told him in school.

At a certain point, the company began creating so much content they needed original music and their own internal library, and Chase moved on to write music in no time. Although at first the workload consisted of composing little tracks, he soon was pumping out almost three tracks everyday. "I taught myself composition and I was validated by my colleagues that it was good because they were using it," Bethea continues. "I still had the job [and] survived the recession and six furloughs." In addition to that, he was also assisting in building computers from the ground up and managing the studio for live performers. There was one score in particular that made the composer change careers forever — after his friend gave the composition a listen, he stated that the music should be in a video game called Castle Crashers. "And I said, you know what? I'm going to do it," he laughs.

Researching video game audio, Bethea stumbled upon interviews of God of War II, which introduced him to the process. "I forgot everything, [so] I needed to go back to school [to] be on that level," he says. "I decided that I was just going to learn the basics of music and theory to get that back into me." When Chase didn't make it through the seventh furlough, he enrolled in Moorpark College.

After completing his education there, the composer pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Media Composition at CSU Northridge. While his first choice was UCLA, in his words, their program had a two percent entry rate, was three times more expensive compared to CSUN, and wouldn't teach him the whole gamut of media work. "Cal State Northridge was renowned for being one of the 15 schools of music at that level for media composition, and I knew I wanted to study orchestration, [which] I didn't get at Moorpark," Chase reasons. "I thought I was going to be challenged, because I had already been scouting the program for years."
When arriving on campus, however, Bethea regretted his choice. "They just weren't upfront about what you were going to do: I was thinking I would be able to do [the program] part-time, but [I was told I] have to do it full-time," he shares. The composer didn't feel like he was being challenged, not to mention that the classes didn't touch on game audio almost at all. Chase would have quit if it wasn't for his piano teacher, Mona DeCesare, who advised him to make a list of all of the game composers he admired, and see how many of them didn't study at college.

From there, the young musician focused on creating his own opportunities. "I actually found a game developer club, [and] I was the first audio person to find [it]," he notes. It was only a semester after it was launched, which meant that it was still fledgling, yet Bethea started bringing other musicians who wanted to learn about the industry on board and inviting guest speakers. "There was none of that type of community there … I had to start from scratch," he admits. "Sometimes the things you think are going to be best aren't the best, and [what's crucial is] how do you recover from that."

Although Chase didn't realize it at the time, his mentor told him that what he was doing was filling in his gaps and weaknesses. "I didn't not enjoy the entire time I was there; there were some good moments," the composer elucidates, listing some of the classes that enhanced his techniques, such as the basic composition and media composition courses, while also noting how musicianship and theory he took at Moorpark College were paramount in his career. "I learned a lot of things along the way to where now I'm writing for a live orchestra piece, which is what I was doing last week, to be recorded in Germany — it's totally from that education … I have to pay homage to those things," he says. A huge influence has been jazz musicianship class, taught by Gary Pratt, which Chase claims to have carried with him every single day.

Being exposed to different music styles is key, but Bethea suggests to not listen to mainstream compositions. "That's a good aim, but that's typically not where you're going to start: you need to be listening to a lot of mobile game scores," he tells me. When you research mobile games that you like, also take the time to look at the composers that scored it and explore their other works. "Even for PC games, put [the] indie composers … a little bit more into your playlist, and then keep your eyes on the AAA scores," the composer advises.

While seemingly straightforward, Chase observes that many tend to overlook the fact that you need to do your homework on the industry. "There are 10 game audio books now, there is so much knowledge; go from that curiosity and do more research," he says. The composer himself was able to land his first gig only because he put so much emphasis on doing his "homework". Discovering a competitions website that had scores in a Steve Jabonlsky format, along with Prince of Persia, Chase was set on emulating this, creating a reel and capturing some of his favorite games.

Bethea's pondering over how to write this music and how it would fit to the video led him to Aaron Marks' Complete Guide to Game Audio, a book he promotes a little too much he jokingly says he should start receiving paychecks. "I got to a certain chapter about how … you need to be going to all these game conferences, and they mentioned GDC and online game developer forums, which there's a myriad of those," Chase recalls.

Picking and its hobbies section, the young musician reached out to two developers, one of which chose him and a few others. "I wrote a new piece besides the audition piece, I just decided to write it," he conveys. "I sent it off to him and then it turned out that I got the gig and paid as well, so it was not only my first shipped game, but my first paid shipped game." To this day, Chase still has the check, as the emotions of hearing his music on a game will always be something he never wants to lose hold of.

The Electron Flux soundtrack is going to be released this year, and Bethea has been streaming the behind-the-scenes process on the Game Revolution's Twitch channel, as well as from his own Twitch account, @gamercomposer. Apart from the soundtrack, the composer shares his writing process for different games, approaches, and techniques with others. Twitch has always been very popular among gamers, yet more and more musicians have been starting to pay attention to the platform, with many concerts being cancelled and artists searching for ways to communicate with their fan base.
"I started on Twitch four years ago, so I've been doing it for a while," Chase tells me. "I was still doing it casually, whenever I wanted to, [and] when people started to notice it just took off this year." He partnered with Indiecade on September 17, and got put onto the Game Revolution's Twitch channel earlier in June, becoming, as he says, the first composer to be featured on their website as someone who makes music for games.

Even if the process was initially very tricky for the musician — trying to understand signal flow, going back into audio engineering — it became easier the more he did it. "Being in the Twitch community, a lot of people like to help you," Bethea elaborates. His best friend, whom he knows since three years old, has started streaming because of Chase's recommendation, and helped Chase out through his first steps. Going into it, his main goal was sharing his arrangements and orchestrations for education purposes, to demonstrate what goes into composing for games. "It's so much time, creativity, what chords you want to use, the mood setting, would these chords match the setting to tell the story, the melodic form," he recounts.

Chase's composition process varies depending on the project he is working on, but he acknowledges that any video game is a collaborative art form. "You have the writer, programmer, artist, animator, editor: there are a lot of people that do their job so great and a lot that goes into that. Sound is a part of the whole process in order for it to ship," he says. Having played games since six, he almost understands it too well — when picking up his PS controller or Xbox, Chase recognizes all of the meticulous work that went into the creation of a certain game, this world that he is about to enter, for him to have this experience.

When embarking on scoring for a new game, the composer often begins with asking himself whether the experience is fun, memorable, and enjoyable together. "If I can answer those three questions while I'm playing the build or reading the story, it's easier for me to conceptualize the music [and] I will have some kind of a little idea that's already clicking and tinkering," Bethea notices. "Typically what I like to write is chord format and I'm always thinking about rhythms, because rhythm is exactly the basis of all music." Coming from a hip hop background, he pulled a lot of influences from there, and believes that you don't have melodies and chords if you don't have rhythm.

At the same time, Chase has been experimenting with writing for podcasts. Scoring his first podcast a month ago, he says it isn't like composing for games at all: "I don't have to think so hard about what the player experience is going to be; it's just what the listener experience is going to be." The client already has a clear idea of what the podcast is about, the genre that they like, and matching this becomes more simple.

If in game development you have to put a lot of thought into technical aspects, such as alignment, one-offs, and cut scenes, the podcast intros and outros just really have to be made to sound good. "Music production is equally valued in both, but you're going to tell right away [if the music in a podcast isn't well made] because you have nothing to do when you listen, but when you're playing a video game, you're focused on graphics and what the story is telling you," Chase smiles.

The podcast industry has been on the rise for a few years, and has seen an even greater uptick with the Covid-19 pandemic. Finding a podcast to score for is an arduous task on its own, which is why Bethea suggests attending a virtual podcast conference. "You're probably not going to be able to work with the people who are giving the talk at the conference because they already have their podcast … [but] you will meet someone who wants to do a podcast that needs music," the composer concludes. "Podcasting is also very interesting because anyone could decide one day they're going to make a podcast.. but who are those people? Are they wearing T-shirts, are they having billboards? It's not that easy."
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