Review: "Nate's Theme" ('Uncharted' OST), Part II

Uncharted-3-Drakes-Deception

In case you missed it, here’s Part I of the review!

Getting right into it, “Nate’s Theme 2.0” sounds completely different from its predecessor right off the bat, and it’s not due to bitrate or quality of the audio file (trust me, I went and listened to a handful of files to make absolutely sure).  

The first big reason for this difference is that, unless my ears are failing me, the theme in Drake’s Fortune is recorded using electronic samples while the one in Among Thieves is done so by recording actual live instrumentalists (it could be that Edmonson simply uses much higher-quality samples, too, though—sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish between the two).  The second reason, which ties into the first, is that everything is just crisper.  From the deadened reverb to the sharper articulations around all the instruments, each note played comes out very cleanly.

The difference in the effect of the newfound crispness is especially striking in the brass.  Every entrance by those instruments is very clear and commanding; every line pushes that feel of excitement and adventure just a bit more.  It’s not just the articulations and production that adds to it either—listen to how much more, for a lack of a better word, "brassy" the section sounds.  Instead of the timbre of the section being straight and clean, Edmonson made sure that the brass got a little dirty this time around.

One will notice the percussion a bit more, as well.  Along with the reasons in the first paragraph, its place in the audio mix is much nicer.  One would not likely doubt its importance in “1.0” – it does, as you have read and heard, set the table for the rest of the tune –, but in “2.0” it makes its presence known from beginning to end and continues to replicate that energy felt in the first phrase.  Listen to the difference from 0:29 to 0:33 and how the entrance of the suspended cymbal rings so much more clearly than before.  That's the stuff.

Speaking of the drive of the percussion, there is a new element in the mix of “2.0” that you might have noticed.  Through 0:40, there is a hit on beat 2 of every measure—it sounds like it might be a ride cymbal.  The hits just reinforce the percussion in the beginning, but then, whether you noticed it or not, when 1:09 kicks the tune back into gear, the cymbal creates even more energy by hitting on both beats 2 and 4.  As it was for me at first, you may have only just felt the effect subconsciously for the first few listens; however, the effect is very much alive if you're listening.  While it might not sound like a huge difference on paper, Edmonson’s writing of the part in this manner was completely deliberate, and it’s as I always like to say: the Art lies in the details.

Let’s quickly check out some other places that Edmonson made minor tweaks that were not tweaked again in the third version of the tune:

0:13 – There’s added string movement here that acts as a response to the line played before it.  These additional call-and-response examples (you will hear more in “3.0”) fill out space, establish a relationship between instruments (in this case, the roles played by the horns and low strings), and keep the piece moving.  By the way, there was certainly not a lack of call-and-response in “1.0”—all one has to do is listen to the next phrase and hear the string response that follows it to get an example of the device's inclusion.

1:34 – This is a perfect example of the brass being much more commanding, and it comes with a little extra spice.  The brass has a certain buoyancy to it in “2.0” that makes it sound like it is laying back a bit.  Instead of  being pointed with its attack on each beat, the buoyancy drags it back ever so slightly, making it sound more in-your-face and, if I may, badass.


Below is both “2.0” and “3.0” for your convenience (feel free to take a breather at any time! haha):

Once again, Edmonson makes major changes in the beginning of the piece.  The three versions are so distinct from one another that one should be able to easily tell which is which right from the get-go in a blindfold test.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is the long, bowed, crescendoing bass note that starts on beat 1 in “3.0.”  One can hear it in “2.0,” but it is somewhat buried in the mix; here, it is loud and clear—here, it makes a huge impact on the mood of the piece.  The title of the third Uncharted is Drake’s Deception, and I figure that Edmonson must have really wanted to get across the feel of deception itself.  Imagine being a fan of the game and having never seen a trailer for the game or having never known the new title—the music alone gets across the atmosphere of the game; it speaks for itself.  It is very cool that such a small addition can affect so much.

 

Compare again the brass instruments from the previous versions to this one.  Their sound is even brighter, even dirtier, and even more articulate than in the second.  Especially evident in “3.0,” the dirty brassy sound is enhanced again by sharper articulations and the bright timbre of the players.  They are clearer in the mix, too.  These factors make them extremely punchy and commanding; their presence is clear and strong.

It is amazing that just the timbre of these instruments can give each version its identity.  The reader should find and listen to a phrase that is exactly the same throughout the versions.  Edmonson has given even the most casual listener a way to grasp each version and know exactly to which game it is tied.  Another fun way to look at these changes and how they affect the distinctiveness of each version, too, is to listen to the versions back-to-back-to-back, as each version seems to just increase in intensity.  Take a few minutes to listen to that here, and then come back and listen to it again when you’re done internalizing the other changes.

In hindsight, Edmonson’s trends with the overall sound of the piece seem obvious and one might think that a probable “4.0” would continue on the same path.  I would not be so quick to come to that conclusion, though.  Everything is so crisp in “3.0” that I find it hard to think that “4.0” will have those qualities amplified.  If I had to predict what Edmonson would have to do to continue those trends in the next version, though, I would say that the strings might be the instruments to find themselves altered.  However, I am more inclined to think that Edmonson will adapt "4.0" to the characteristics of the next installment's plot and feel.

Upon composing his third rendition of “Nate’s Theme,” Edmonson had two directions to go with regard to change.  Whereas from the first to the second he could only move forward through addition (or addition by subtraction), in “3.0” he also had the ability to look at the changes made in “2.0” and ret-con them.  There are many elements that I failed to mention as differences between “1.0” and “2.0” earlier because they have a different identity in “3.0” as well.

First, though, what did Edmonson decide that he liked and wanted to more forward with, and what other additions had he made?

0:21 – He enhanced the strings added in “2.0” with the inclusion of a trumpet.  Moving along with the brass comments made earlier, the trumpet makes the line pop a little more.  Plus, the trumpet became more of a defining instrument in “3.0”—it is given playtime in a few new important spots.

0:57-1:00 – Strings fill up some empty space, making the first phrase in that section lead more heavily in the second.  Personally, I enjoy how it keeps the part flowing; without the strings, the tune feels like it falls of the face of the earth.

1:30 – I mentioned how the brass seemed to lay back in “2.0,” but here things have changed a bit more.  This is another spot with a trumpet addition, and here it acts strictly as a call-and-response vessel with the first response being to the strings and the second to the brass.  The feel of the response is wispy; it almost acts like a ghost.  Because of that, the trumpet seems to take on the brass' old mantle of pulling back while the brass actually counteracts it and pushes forward this time around.  Along with its new sound, the brass retains its command and forcefulness; despite it playing its phrases with a different feel, its effect remains similar to that of “2.0”.

1:41 – The ending of “3.0” is extended a bit compared to the previous versions.  Originally, a booming bass drum hit shut off the percussion and led the horns to fade out; now, it shuts off everything but the shaker, which requires an extra hit to be brought down.  To me, the shaker hanging on represents Nate’s willpower.  Just judging based on trailers I have seen, I imagine Nate falling from the airplane into the desert, hanging onto life in a desolate place where hope seems naught.  Will his opposition, the bass drum, really silence him as it did in the theme?  Time will only tell, dear gamer (well, time has already told for most of you, I'm sure). Now that we have covered just the differences between “2.0” and “3.0,” let us take a look at what Edmonson decided to add in “2.0” and then alter or ret-con when moving onto his latest incarnation.

0:44-0:58 – In “2.0” you’ll hear a trumpet very clearly in the left channel of your speakers, but no longer in “3.0.”  I imagine that Edmonson just decided that the trumpet stood out a bit too much.  It doesn’t seem out of character when it sticks out; as I mentioned in Part I of the review, this section shows depth to the character of Nathan Drake, and the trumpet seems like it represents some sort of continued nobleness through these deeper reflections.  Could it be that maybe Edmonson thought that nobility ultimately has no place mixing with those other, deeper factors that make up Drake’s character?  Something else one might consider is that the string bass is much more impactful in “3.0” from 0:50-0:58, certainly adding to that feeling of depth.  Whether the trumpet removal and increased bass were character-driven or solely musical choices to keep the section smoothly blended, I think Edmonson made the right move.

1:21-1:24 – In each version the listener will hear cellos fill space between the main melodic lines of the piece.  In “2.0,” their presence is more a background ornament, but in the first and second versions, they really stand out.  The line really serves as a way to move the harmony forward and create more tension when moving into the last chord.  I think Edmonson did well by reverting to his original approach to the part.  The stronger transition makes the deceptive cadence more compelling, strengthening the section musically and, thus, emotionally (not to mention that, hey, this is the theme to “Drake’s Deception” we’re talking about here—if the effect of the deceptive cadence isn’t peaking in this version, I think something’s amiss).

1:35 – Edmonson dealt with one more part that he decided to make stick out in “2.0,” only to take it back in the next version.  In “2.0,” one will hear the trombone parts split and play in harmony.  The trombone that moves up in pitch from its first, lower note is the new addition to the second version, and Edmonson made sure it would be heard.  In “3.0,” however, the harmony is buried in the background to the point of me having thought that maybe I was just making up the fact that it was still there.  All burying it does it ensure that the main line holds tight to its status—we know that it is the one that is supposed to do the talking.  I think the harmonic bit as an added element is nice, but maybe unnecessary.  I could swing either way, and I definitely believe that it’s just a matter of taste whether one thinks it sounds better or not.


So what does one gain from the knowledge of all of these changes?  Ultimately, we as fans of “Nate’s Theme” are treated by Edmonson’s desire to work on his theme from game to game.  Usually, one listens to a musical work and that’s it—the composer’s work is done.  Sometimes one may hear arrangements by other musicians or maybe a live version of a tune will differ from its original recorded version.  Here, though, the original composer has gone back to work more on his own piece and rerecord it.  It’s important to note the recording because a recorded version of a tune is all most will hear of one’s composition this day and age, and fans of the tune will hear it over and over.  We have the luxury of studying these new versions and combing them for the minutest of changes, whereas if one hears listens to a live version where differences occur, one must really know the tune well if s/he is going to pick out the intricacies.

And these differences are rather accessible, too, I think, for the casual listener, which is fun.  Sure, s/he may not have picked them out without really trying, but once led to them, s/he may interpret them as s/he pleases, and those interpretations may allow one to think about and hear the music in a whole new light.  In fact, I’m very interested in hearing what you, the readers and listeners, think about the changes from version to version.  Do you disagree with me on points?  Have you heard changes that I have not?   One thing that I cannot comment on is whether or not these changes somehow reflect the differences in story from version to version (beyond just assumptions made based on the titles of the games and their trailers) or perhaps represent the development of Nathan Drake’s character.  Please let me know because I would love to discuss the changes with you and discover even more sides to Edmonson’s fantastic work.

Thank you, as always, for reading!

PS: Don’t forget to listen to all of the themes in succession again!


Below is a rough timeline of the changes I pointed out through each version:

v1.0: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut_dinnEdMk
v2.0: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkPF5UiDi4g
v3.0: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeUYzDgs498

v2.0 - A little dirtier and commanding than the first - Articulations and general sound is crisper - Percussion more prominent
0:13 – More string movement
0:29-0:33 – More string movement; note percussion
0:44-0:58 – Trumpet addition
1:09 – Cymbal drives on beats 2 and 4
1:21-1:24 – Less prominent low strings in places
1:35 – Crisp brass strikes again, now with new harmonic element; layback

v3.0 - Already a big different in beginning; rolling bass drum and stand-out low string note - Even dirtier brass, and brighter, too, adding to the dirt’s punchiness; more articulate
0:21 – Trumpet addition
0:44-0:58 – Trumpet out (vs. 2.0); bass bowing prevalent
0:57-1:00 – More cello movement
1:21-1:24 – Low strings stick out again
1:30 – Trumpet addition pulls back, other brass pushes ahead
1:35 – Harmony in 2.0 doesn’t stand out any longer

v1.0-2.0-3.0
0:44-0:58 – The listener will hear a trumpet playing in its low range in “2.0,” but not in the first. Trumpet at :48
0:50-0:58 – No more trumpets, but added bass bow
1:21-1:24 – The low strings stick out in 1.0 and 3.0
1:35 – New harmony found in 2.0 doesn’t stand out