Car Tech

Hans Zimmer Brings Hollywood Storytelling to BMW Electric Sound Design

Legendary film score writer Hans Zimmer may have helped “kill the radio star” with his band the Buggles and their 1979 breakthrough video, but forty years on, he’s teamed up with BMW to help preserve the brand’s aural identity. Or more to the point, create a new sound signature that will accompany the automaker into its electric future.

As we know, electric motors make almost no sound, and for a company like BMW that has a long history of tuneful engines – most significantly the siren song of its straight-sixes – a barely perceptible whine does not provide the same engagement and emotional connection its customers are used to. But don’t think Zimmer, who’s working alongside Renzo Vitale, acoustic engineer and sound designer at the BMW Group, is conjuring up traditional engine sounds to pipe through the EV’s audio system – something BMW does quite well already.

No, this “BMW IconicSounds Electric” exercise is altogether more esoteric and forward-thinking. And at this point, pretty abstract. The current test bed vehicle is the gorgeous BMW Vision M NEXT concept that broke cover earlier in 2019. The palette of sounds, still in the very early stages of design, is for the benefit of both those inside the car and outside – the latter being more than just low-speed warning sounds for pedestrians.

What we heard coming from the stationary Vision M NEXT was a Buck Rogers-like synthesized spaceship whine that will rise in pitch when the car accelerates away, and the reverse when the car arrives and comes to a stop. Nothing particularly ground-breaking, but as I learned later, this somewhat predictable affectation was developed before Zimmer came on board.

Silence and Bliss

A visit to Zimmer’s spectacular recording studio in Santa Monica later that day gave us the opportunity to hear the first official sound created by Zimmer and Vitale. Fittingly, the 1.8-second snippet will be the first thing drivers hear when they press the Start button of their electric vehicle. And yes, it is a wonderfully complex, and indeed cinematic composition that starts with a percussive hit, sonically escalating to its climax via broadening layers of analogue synth sounds, orchestral timbres, and a female voice that was recorded specifically for this application.

Judging by this little nugget, future BMW EV pilots are in for a treat. Nonetheless, whatever is on the aural menu, both Zimmer and Vitale acknowledge silence is a rare commodity these days, so owners will have the option of muting these creations and basking in the relative peaceful environment electric vehicles can provide.

“One of the things that hit me when BMW came to me was the idea of getting rid of the combustion engine… doing the leap in my mind of what the world was like before we had the combustion engine, before the industrial revolution. When we had silence. And silence is sort of an expensive commodity to get to these days. And then I started thinking: here’s a revolutionary opportunity to go and make the sound of our world more beautiful.”

Hans Zimmer has been a massive figure in Hollywood for decades. Not only has he scored dozens of big movies, he’s also credited with creating a whole new way of doing it – being the first composer to use mostly synthesized and sampled sounds, augmenting them with “real” recorded elements, be they voice, guitar, orchestra, percussion, whatever. First and foremost, he has the innate ability to tell a story through the themes he composes. And thus Zimmer’s interest piqued when he was approached by BMW.

Zimmer says, “I have always been a BMW enthusiast. As a kid I used to recognise my mother coming home by the sound of her BMW. I am thrilled to get the chance to design the sound of future electric BMW’s and create emotion for the future electric driving experience.”

Unlimited Potential, Unlimited Speed

For the half hour that BMW managed to pull Zimmer away from working on his latest project to speak to our small group of auto writers, it was apparent this man is always curious, quite funny, and immensely creative. Zimmer speaks with infectious enthusiasm, his brain racing faster than he can get the words out. “Another way which we… well, why not have an orchestra within your car? Why not do any of those things? Anything you want that lets your imagination run riot?”

Zimmer is the master of soundscapes, and one audio “illusion” that he’s well known for is called the Shepard Tone – a series of rising tones layered upon one another that, when looped, trick the ear into hearing the sound as constantly rising, creating tension. Zimmer says, “This is a start, and a very interesting start. The Shepard Tone is like a barber pole – the illusion of something that can constantly rise. It’s the idea of infinity, really. (Director) Chris Nolan and I did of lot of that sort of stuff in Inception. It’s going to be great fun to give you a car with unlimited potential, unlimited speed. It’s one way of playing it.”

Zimmer wants the accelerator pedal to be a performance element – an experience during which the driver moves through a series of gradually morphing sound textures. And how will all this play out? Silence is the canvas on which Zimmer paints, and right now there are only a few brush strokes. IconicSounds Electric is an intriguing pursuit, and kudos to BMW for luring this aural Rembrandt to guide them on the journey. Wherever it may end up.

Before concluding our talk (and letting Zimmer get back to work), Vitale played the sound we heard earlier that day emitting from the Vision M NEXT – one that Zimmer did not have his fingerprint on. Vitale says, “I’m sure by listening to this, Hans, you are already seeing other trajectories we can take in the future.”

“Oh, always!” Hans laughs. “That is never a problem. I think one of the problems BMW will have by being in partnership with me is that I never run out of ideas.”