Sound Byte: Meet the Composer - Greg Edmonson

We talk to the main composer of the Uncharted series about his recent work on the third game.

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The Uncharted series is renowned not only for its action-packed gameplay, but also for its grand soundtrack. Specifically, Uncharted 2's OST was nominated for and won numerous awards, thanks to the work of composer Greg Edmonson. GameSpot asked Edmonson a few questions about his recent work on the third game.

GameSpot: Tell us about your background in music.

Greg Edmonson: Let's see. I started out as a guitarist and moved to Los Angeles, because there are so many more opportunities here. Early on, I got the opportunity to write for Hanna-Barbera, and that was a seminal point for me. I began to write for Mike Post, who was a giant in the TV world, and I worked with Mike for a few years on such shows as Cop Rock, L.A. Law, Quantum Leap, and so forth.

At some point, as with all good things, it was time to move on and do my own thing. I did some specials and pilots for Fox, some independent movies, and then started working on King of the Hill, which ran for 12 years. In 2002, I scored a fabulous show called Firefly for Joss Whedon. It was a spectacular project, but unfortunately it was cancelled after only 15 episodes. However, that was only the start of something wonderful and ongoing, as it has survived and thrived on DVD, and the fan base is now larger than ever.

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GS: What are your favourite instruments when composing tracks?

GE: I don't have an easy answer, as they all do different things. I write mostly with piano, and sometimes guitar. But I love writing for ethnic instruments, as well as use them. They add a wonderful and exotic flavor to the music. I have a couple of wonderful friends that I have worked with for years, such as Chris Bleth (ethnic woodwinds) and Craig Stull (ethnic stringed instruments). They helped me figure out what is actually playable on any specific instrument. I usually receive advice (and great performances) on the percussion from Brad Dutz and MB Gordy. I really love big drums--they just drive the action right along.

So, really, I guess that I am a fan of it all. Everything is a tool, and it really just depends on what you need to accomplish. For the Uncharted series, we use mostly strings, brass, percussion, and all of our ethnic flavours--that is a pretty broad and inclusive palette. One of the great joys of scoring video games is that you have resources that would normally only be available for big movies.

GS: Why did you pick Uncharted as your start into video game music? Or were you chosen by series developer Naughty Dog?

GE: Interestingly enough, Firefly had just been cancelled, so I was between projects. Naughty Dog was in the early stages of developing the Uncharted series, and they were making a trailer to show at E3. They were listening to different soundtracks against the picture, and one of the tracks on the Firefly CD caught their attention. We began a dialogue, and even though I was new to the world of video game scoring, they were willing to take me through the process and let me learn.

I am so honoured and thrilled to be working with creative director Amy Hennig, Naughty Dog co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, and everyone at Sony. It truly is a team effort.

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GS: How much different is it to work in video games when compared to doing compositions for TV and film? How different are the methods of creating and recording in this aspect?

GE: Well it is, in fact, very different in some aspects--mostly because a video game doesn't exist in its final form until very near the end of the project. If you are working on a TV show or a film, the picture is shot and edited by the time you actually see it, so now your job is to put music into the scene and become a part of the support for the storytelling process. Video games are in a very early stage of development when you begin writing music. There may be rough graphics, but you need good guidance, as the game will be ever-changing until the very end.

Sony is responsible for the implementation of the music into the game so it is important for me to make sure and cover all of the areas where they will need music. Sometimes you write to the picture, and sometimes you just use your imagination, but it is always important to capture the "soul" of the game.

Interestingly enough, sometimes music that you wrote for one area of the game may end up working just as well (or better) in another area. That is why it is so important to be surrounded by a team of creative people who can adapt to the changes and make it all work.

GS: Let's focus on Uncharted 3. What's the theme and style of the music this time around?

GE: Well, the bulk of the game takes place in the desert, so that required a change of direction and style. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves takes place in Tibet, and we were able to use the giant Tibetan temple horns and the beautiful er-hu, which is an ancient Chinese violin. In Uncharted 3, we used instruments that were indigenous to the desert culture. We had the zurna and ney for our primary woodwinds, and the saz and the santur for our stringed instruments. You don't always have to be "on the nose" accurate with these; you just want to add an exotic flavour to the music.

I wrote the themes using a different scale, as well. I used a variation of the Phrygian scale, and that gives the music a whole different melodic shape than either of the other Uncharted projects. It is quite fun to get to experiment with all of the exotic locales that pop up in the game.

We also have some other ethnic instruments that we always find a way to use in some fashion. The duduk is an Armenian woodwind that has a dark and haunting sound, and the bouzouki is a Greek stringed instrument--they always seem to make an appearance, just because they sound so cool.

Stylistically, you always try to make the music feel right for the picture/locale. So in a panoramic desert, the music may need more space as you gaze over the endless dunes. It is always the job of the music to try to match the tone and look of the picture, although sometimes the subtext is more important than the obvious.

Of course, another part of the sound of Uncharted is the orchestra. In Uncharted 3, we were lucky enough to record at Abbey Road in London. It is a wonderful studio, and London has so many magnificent musicians that the recording process was just a joy. When you add in our soloists, our group consists of about 80 players.

GS: What's the standout track that players should listen for when playing Uncharted 3?

GE: Oh, that one is hard to answer; one track called "Small Beginnings" is different from anything that we have done before. That piece has a lot of nylon string guitar. I think that the action cues are by far the best that we have ever done. For the first time, we actually designed some cues to match certain levels of the game.

In one area, Nathan Drake is traversing a ship graveyard, looking for Sully. Somali-like pirates seize commercial ships, and after looting them, they just abandon them to rust and rot in this ocean cemetery. We were looking for a sound that matched this rusty, grungy place and decided that really distorted electric guitars seemed to do the job best.

This was unlike anything that we have done before, but it looked just right with the picture. So, really, I don't have favourite tracks, as much as I just love it when a scene works and is exciting to the person playing the game. I find that the music is so highly personal to people that you just never quite know which piece will speak to them.

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GS: How much John Williams did you channel when writing the score, seeing as the Uncharted series is inspired by the Indiana Jones quadrilogy?

GE: I think that John Williams is a genius, but I don't really write like him. John is a master of just using the orchestra to score a picture. I personally love all of the elements that ambient synth sounds and giant percussion add to a score, not to mention all of the ethnic influences that we talked about earlier. I love driving an action cue with taikos and hand percussion, and then layering the orchestra on top.

So, even though we used a lot of orchestra, I really love to mix in other elements to take it in a different direction. In other words, I am not a purist; orchestra is one of the tools at your disposal, albeit a very important one. What I share with John Williams is a great love of melodic shape and focus, and I believe that Uncharted 3 is my best work to date in that area. Right now, at this point in time, both movies and TV shows are using a lot more ambient scores. Video games allow you to actually write big melodies, and they seem to fit right in.

GS: Speaking of which, was he one of your influences in music? Who else influenced you in your composition style?

GE: I like so many people for so many different reasons that my list is endless. I love Jerry Goldsmith, and I love Thomas Newman--very different composers, but both spectacular. That is one of the fun things about writing music for media. There are no real rules…whatever works, just works. I will give you an example: you could score an epic battle scene with a real high-energy action cue, and it would make the picture feel one way.

You could score the same exact scene with "Adagio for Strings" (as they did in the film Platoon), and the beauty of the music juxtaposed against the carnage onscreen changes the feel of the picture completely. There are so many wonderful composers around today, and the video-game industry is full of them--so many really talented guys, and I count myself lucky to be working amongst them.

GS: The song "Reunion" for Uncharted 2 won the Game Audio Network Guild award for Best Original Instrumental Song. What was the inspiration for the track's mix between Asian and orchestra instruments?

GE: I love "Reunion." When I wrote that cue, there was not a specific place in the game for it to go. I just wanted to write something emotional and melodic for professional er-hu player Karen Han to play. She is without peer, and is the master of the er-hu, which is a very difficult instrument to play. Sony and Hennig were kind enough to let me record it, even though we didn't know for sure if it would fit in the game.

It turns out that there was a cinematic later in the game where Shafer dies, and "Reunion" just fell right in and worked great.

We also used part of "Reunion" when, at the end of the game, Nate thinks that Elena is dying, and he picks her up in his arms and runs from the imploding Shambala.

One of the great joys of the Uncharted series is that it has real emotional content and characters that you care about. This is because Hennig starts by writing a really good script and casting the roles with really great actors--that makes my job both easy and fun. In the Uncharted series, the story is not just an excuse to get from gameplay to gameplay.

A good game, movie, or TV show starts with a great story. The arc to the story and hence the game is to make the player feel like they are immersed in a movie or similar cinematic experience, and emotion and emotional music are a big part of that. I was thrilled that people responded to "Reunion." Han played so beautifully, and I am quite proud of that track.

GS: If, by any chance, you were done with the Uncharted series, what existing game franchise would you love to compose for?

GE: It's hard to answer that question, but let me say this: one of the very exciting things about the video game business is that it is changing and growing very quickly. Games are becoming more human and emotional, as technology allows you to do things that were impossible a couple of years ago.

I am quite thrilled to be a part of it all, and as the franchises grow and evolve I would love to be involved in any way that I can! As games become more sophisticated, they raise the bar for everyone else, and it is an exciting time to work in a business filled with such creative people. I am a very lucky man!

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