Chase Bethea | Writing Dynamic Music for Video Games

Chase Bethea | Writing Dynamic Music for Video Games
January 18, 2022

Chase Bethea | Writing Dynamic Music for Video Games

Chase Bethea is one of the most prolific and omnipresent composers in the video game industry today. He has shipped well over 20 games, a number that is rising rapidly based on the workload he has shared with us. Recognition for his work is extensive, including a nomination for Artist of the Year – Independent Composer by VGMO, and he is frequently called upon to give lectures and appear on panels at conferences such as PAX, IGDA, GameSound Con, Berklee College of Music, ECGC, Pixel Pop Festival, Game Devs of Color, ADC (Audio Developers Conference), A2IM, Indie Game Business and EPOS Gaming. Chase is very active online, streaming weekly on Twitch with his Game Audio Life series for Indiecade, his personal channel as Gamecomposer, and a series called How To Make Game Music for GameRevolution. What is most impressive is that he has risen to this level of success and notoriety after only being in the business for ten years!

From Small Beginnings

Starting out playing alto sax in the band and singing in the choir during his middle and high school years, Chase attended the Los Angeles Recording School (LARS) upon graduation. Armed with that important technical and engineering background, he first tried to make it as a hop-hop and rap artist. All throughout the nine years he worked at it he continually received feedback that his music sounded like video game music.

I realized that if so many different people were all telling me the same thing, that it sounds like video game music, I should think about what that means and go forward from there.”

When he got serious about composing he realized that he needed a brush-up on his music theory and composing skills, so he first went to Moorpark College, earning his AA in Music Theory and Composition. In his last semester he started working as an intern at Mobotory Games in 2011, learning some important skills that he carries with him to this day. Next up was California State Northridge, for more study on orchestration, earning his BM in Media Composition. Already a pattern is emerging: this is a person who has initiative, searches out the right places to get knowledge from, and is not afraid of putting in the time and hard work. Perhaps his best trait is how much time and effort he puts into giving back, sharing his knowledge and educating people interested in doing what he does. Let’s listen in as he does just that.

What’s the most exciting thing about being a video game composer?

Seeing how people respond to your work — the entire art form, not just the music. Sure, I play a big role in it, I would say it’s a 50% role within that, but it’s more about how everything came together, and the impact you have on people’s lives. For me I know that video games were an escape. You’ve had a hard day, you don’t want to think about much, or you’re going through something very personal, or very stressful; no matter what it is, the game is an escape from all of that. It’s a place where you can experience a different world, and hopefully something better. Or maybe bring something to light within yourself that you didn’t know, or hadn’t time to think about. And then to hear, for example when I worked on the game Aground, people were saying to me,“You’ve helped me through my depression.” That touches my heart so much.

To align the mechanics and the art that’s being drawn with my music so that it touched somebody in that way? That is something that’s intangible, but wonderful.”

What makes composing for games different than film or television?

 

I would say the difference is you never know where the music is going to take you, because the story can change based on the actions of the player. I deal with dynamic music now, so my design skills have to go beyond composition. I’ll give you a small example: I’m writing the music system with the developer for Stardander, the RPG (role playing game) visual novel, and this battle system that he created is different, because it doesn’t exist in typical RPG or visual novels. And so I was thinking, “OK, I’ll write the music to have a dynamic system, so the string parts only come in when your party is winning, or if your party is losing health there’s different sections of the music where it’s just the drums, and so forth. For the combat I would take it a step further, since the full name is Stardander School For Witches, there’s spells involved, so I was thinking I’ll have an Earth tone. I can think about these designs to align the instruments to the actual spell systems themselves. I can use more craftsmanship based on what the player is going to do, so it’s never the same experience for each person who plays it, because they’re going to play differently, and I’m thinking about this ahead of time. Compare that to film and television: there’s a story, there’s a path - you’re going to have a beginning, middle and end no matter what. So all the composer typically has to do is hit those marks to help enhance and tell the story — there’s not going to be any dynamic changes. Sure, you can interpret the art in different ways, but you’re not going to hear the music differently at all: that music is going to stay the same.

That’s the difference to me: game music can go beyond just being linear, or a loop and be dynamic, and be customized to the path the player chooses to take.”

What are you currently working on?

I’m very fortunate to be working on 6-10 games right now. So what that means is weekly, for the past two months I’ve been working on at least three to four games. I’m writing every day right now for that Stardander game I mentioned earlier. Another one is a tutorial setup game of how people can create a game in Unity. I’m writing music for a rhythm game, and I’m also writing music for a puzzle game. Another one is called Space Marmalade; it’s a tactical strategy battleship game set in space. There are some others that I’ve just gotten aligned, that will happen next year. One is called Aground Zero, another I did as a game jam but now is being released to Google Stadia called Bushido Bots. Another is called Wind Rush. So that’s seven in the near term, with another few I’m forgetting right now! (Laughs)

I know that as long as I’m being proactive I’m always ahead of schedule.

It’s a big blessing; I went from having nothing to all these opportunities. I only focus on what I need to take care of this week, the next week. I know how fast and efficient I can be and how organized I am. Because I understand game development, I know it can shift, it can move forward, so I know that as long as I’m being proactive I’m always ahead of schedule.

How are software, and software instruments involved in your process?

 

We grew up in the golden era of Nintendo, and Sega Genesis as two examples. There were limitations of those consoles. They could only play on certain televisions; and the music could only play off a small number of channels. So you had to be crafty in making it sound the best possible for that experience, to be the art form that it can be. And the software and hardware were distinctive contributors towards what that sound identity for the game was. That is how hardware and the software align for me, because even though we now have fewer limitations the sound identity for each project is imperative: that is what’s going to separate it from the next project. If everything sounds typically the same, and we all use the same software, or we’re not trying to change the patches in Omnisphere or something, everyone can recognize the sounds. Where is that unique signature? That’s why those instruments (software and hardware) play such a big role, because the sounds I choose or create with them gives the game its signature. If you are in another room, or you are walking by an arcade somewhere you’d know what the game is being played.

The great thing I love about Unify is that it is fresh, and not the thing that everyone has been using (yet!).”

My go to’s would be… I use and love Unify, and I use Fold all the time. PlugIn Guru’s Unify is amazing, I just used that on the Reclaim Earth soundtrack, which was released earlier this year (May 2021). There was a time when I limited myself to only using a few instruments, because I knew that if you really get to know how to use an instrument you can cultivate it to do what you want. That was the limitation that I set for myself, because I got into the mindset of “OK, if they had limitations we can still do that, but how are we going to impart that unique identity when we technically don’t really have any limitations?”

I choose to still set limitations based on the compositional achievement that I need to do. So for Aground it was “these are the plug-ins I’m going to use”, but the range was I’ve got to write five to six minutes of music. So the music was going to be there for a long time and needed to be able to open up. For the game that I used Unify on (Reclaim Earth), the limit I set was based on how the game was: you could only use it in lo-res poly format, so it’s going to look like Turoks, and Doom, or Quake. But the range was that we needed to enhance the texture and the palette to feel more modern, but still nostalgic. Even with all the patches available in Unify I still wanted to design it to, for example, convey the emptiness that you feel about survival when you go through various landscapes in the game. Thankfully, Unify has all these great spacial, atmospheric sounds and pads to draw on. The great thing I love about Unify is that it is fresh, and not the thing that everyone has been using (yet!). I want to use something that’s just a little bit different because it can add that unique sound identity that people can later go, “He used what?” And maybe it can inspire them to branch out a little bit more.

I’ve been using Delta Sound Labs Fold on a new project, Aground Zero; it’s a spin-off from Aground. Now it’s in 3-D, but you’re doing the same type of organization and mining: it’s really just a sub-section of the story from the main game. So it moves a piece of what happens there into a new, more detailed story that fleshes out and ties back together to the previous game. So I again set a limit on a specific sound palette for that, but I wanted the player to be reminded of the things they liked and the sound palette from before, even though I wasn’t going to use the same instruments. So when Fold came across I knew, “this is what I want!” It was different; I can get new things out of it but still maintain that connection the community loved in the original game so much.

Fold allowed me to alter the timbres to sound fresh while maintaining their identity.”

Do you have any production tips for people just getting into using software and plug-ins and their computer?

What I discovered with Unify, and anything that I first start with, it always feels a little scary, and daunting. You have this new tool; you know what you think you want to do with it, but you don’t know anything about it yet, and there’s this learning curve that has to happen. I think that tinkering and experimenting is the best way. Just start with an initial patch and build everything up from there. And don’t be afraid to layer things. Layering will give you so much texture, so much more than you think that you need, but you DO need!

For Fold, it’s simple — it’s all about experimentation. I feel like that’s what it was created for. I think it wants you to just turn knobs, and treat it like a synthesizer and not be afraid to be destructive. It can always be undone, so just go crazy. It reacts so much to the input signal and the level of the signal: change that a little bit and you get a very different sound.

The period of plateau is just as important as the period of growth…and sometimes what feels like a plateau later reveals itself to have been growth.”

Talk about your online presence and your educational activities.

I stream on three channels: my personal channel, then I stream on a gaming website channel (Gamerevolution), which I think I’m the first to do that, showing how the music is made on a gaming website channel. And then I also do a show on Indiecade, which is a festival that champions indie games. I do a weekly “behind the scenes of my music composing process” on Twitch. Each week I share what I’m working on: it’s a twofold thing: I try to educate people on how it’s done, or at least how I do it. And I’m getting work done at the same time!

Everything that I typically do behind the curtain is going out live.”

Chase's livestream, composing for Aground via Gamerevolution's Twitch channel

I’m literally composing in that moment, then implementing it into the game. It started out on my personal channel, which I’ve been doing for over five years. I’ve only added the others over the last year. The reason I started it is to educate developers that it’s not just pressing a note on a keyboard, or playing and it magically just sounds like some famous composer. It’s detailed work that goes through a lot of iterations.

If you could pass down one piece of knowledge to someone, what would it be?

Keep doing your own thing. Don’t compare yourself to anyone other than yourself. I came to realize this a few years ago, and when I did everything started to fall into place. I don’t think people hear it enough.