TOMH: Hans Zimmer
It’s not unusual for us to ponder what the future will look like - flying cars, genetically perfected designer human beings, skies the colour of rust - but we rarely take time to wonder what it will sound like.
The sounds of a 20th-century Australian childhood: Richie Benaud chewing his two for 22s at the cricket, angry V8 engines torturing tyres into smoke, are already a thing of the past. But what will we be hearing, or not hearing, a decade or two from now?
Stand on any city street and close your eyes. Aside from the burble of human conversation, what you’ll mostly pick up is the thrum, clatter, and chug of cars, vans and beaten old taxis.
It might seem hard to believe, but in the not-so-distant future the constant carping of traffic is destined to fall silent, as the internal-combustion engine dies an unavoidable, and arguably long-overdue death.
Cities like Paris and London have already committed to forcing these CO2-spewing machines off their streets, and companies like BMW talk openly about the fact that they will no longer build, nor be allowed to sell traditional, petrol-powered cars by 2050.
This means a rapid shift towards electric vehicles is already under way, particularly in Europe, where BMW predicts that, by 2025, one third of all its new-car sales will be electrified, and 50 per cent by 2030.
Car enthusiasts are slowly coming around to the idea, as companies like Tesla, and more recently Porsche, with its incredibly fast and furious all-electric Taycan, have made the EV option look, and feel, exciting.
Sadly, they still sound about as invigorating and exciting as a fart in a swimming pool. While the world’s car companies have so far failed to agree on a universal, external sound that electric cars should emit at lower speeds, say up to 30km/h, to avoid pedestrians being mowed down by silent death machines, there’s even less of a middle road being ploughed on what kind of fun noises they’ll make, both inside the vehicle and out, when they’re being driven spiritedly.
Companies like BMW know that this is going to prove problematic, that sports cars need to entice all of our senses, and as such its best brains have begun working seriously on the sounds that its EVs will make in the near future. To help them, they’ve taken on Hans Zimmer - a man whose work you already love, even if you don’t immediately recognise his name.
Zimmer, one of Hollywood’s most prolific and successful composers, is old enough to remember the days when you used to worry about when your parents were going to get home, because you couldn’t call their mobile phones and ask them.
Born with a fascination for sounds that would one day make him hugely rich and reasonably famous as one of the world’s pre-eminent film-score writers, he would stand on the balcony of his Munich home as a child, listening to all the different cars, and finally spotting the particular timbre of his mother’s BMW 5 Series.
“I could absolutely identify the sound of her engine, it was unique to me, and when I heard that sound coming up the driveway, I knew that everything was going to be fine, so it was very comforting for me,” Zimmer, 62, recalls.
It was partly this “emotional connection” to the brand, and no doubt also the substantial amount of money BMW is tipping into Zimmer’s estimated worth of $US200 million, that tempted him to get involved in creating the new, and thrillingly sci-fi-like sounds the company’s next generation of EVs will make.
More than anything, though, Zimmer, who exudes the kind of volcanic positive energy you really only see in successful Hollywood creatives, wanted to do it because he found it an exciting challenge.
And a pleasant change from getting paid an average of $US2m per movie to create the soundtracks you know so well - everything from Gladiator (and plenty of other Ridley Scott films) to The Dark Knight (and all of Christopher Nolan’s films), The Lion King (he won an Oscar for that one, it has pride of place in his incredible Santa Monica studio) and even The Simpsons Movie.
His latest work, with BMW, may become even more commonly known than his fine filmic efforts, as the sounds he’s created are rolled out across the roads of the world.
“However refined and wonderful it is, the petrol engine is still just a mechanical thing, and this moment of changing all that, of creating new worlds in the car, is one I’m very excited about,” Zimmer booms.
“As people who live by our ears more than anything else, both Renzo (Vitale, BMW’s sound engineer) and I have had his dream of what happens when we no longer have the noise of engines, of going back to a time before the industrial revolution.”
“Rather than the necessity that things make a sound, we will have the opportunity to make the most beautiful sonic landscapes in the world.”
“In the very near future, your car will be able to speak to you in a beautifully customised way.”
If it’s up to Zimmer, of course, it will be an enormous symphony of sounds that BMW buyers will get to play with “like a performer, through the gas pedal, you will have access to the modulation of sound” as he puts it, because the guy seems to have more ideas than there are minutes in the day."
The first thing he was asked to work on was the “start-up sound”, and the Blade Runner meets Back to the Future II humming trill that he’s created will soon feature on every car in the BMW range when a driver hits the Start button.
His inspiration for this musical moment was a combination of a spiralling glass sculpture in Germany, and how bad the weather is in winter in Munich.
“It’s miserable, it’s gritty, you’re going down to the garage, steeling yourself for the experience of getting in the car, getting stuck in traffic, and I thought wouldn’t it be nice if the noise you got when you started your car could put a smile on your face, to be something that makes you a little bit happier - I want us to be in the happiness business,” Zimmer enthuses.
“This is where the world is going, it’s not just getting into your car any more, I want you to be very conscious that you’re going on a journey, to have an experience, and at the end it’s to meet each other, to connect in a human way, without ruining the planet.
“And that’s not unimportant right now. Another guy I work for is Sir David Attenborough, so I hear a lot about that.”
On a larger, louder scale, Zimmer and Vitale - a passionate Italian sound engineer who seems slightly in awe of working with the German composer - were asked to come up with the noises that drivers of the thus-far concept-only BMW Vision M Next hybrid will hear when they hit the “gas”.
You can download the sound files online, and it is an impressively OTT and futuristic feast of noise, particularly the sonic boom as the driver uses the Boost function. It’s almost as wild as the car looks, in fact.
Zimmer’s goal was to create a vehicle that “feels like it’s accelerating into the future all the time, which was very easy for us to do in our sonic world - it’s very hard for you to do in the physical world without crashing into a wall”, he laughs.
To do this he wanted to use something called a “Shepard tone”, which is the musical equivalent of M.C. Escher’s endless stairs, “a sound that seems to constantly move upwards, even though it’s all an illusion”.
The Batmobile - aka the Tumbler - from The Dark Knight film, the sounds of which Zimmer had a hand in creating, also used a Shepard tone, to create a sense that its acceleration was unstoppable, and super-hero worthy.
BMW is not alone in toying with the sonic possibilities of electric vehicles, of course. Jaguar, one of the world’s first establishment car companies to have a real crack at a pure EV, in the shape of its unique iPace luxury SUV, genuinely tested out a pre-production version that sounded “just like the Pod Racers from the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; a kind of whoop-whoop, whoosh,” according to former Jag design genius Ian Callum.
In the end, of course, like most cautious car companies, and even the more daring Tesla, Jaguar went with a kind of absence of exciting sound instead, just the gentle whistle an air-sucking sounds that most EVs have.
It’s not an option considered acceptable by the BMW M division’s closest competitor, Mercedes-Benz AMG, however.
For many years, AMG, the tuning house that turns Benzes bonkers, has been famous for hand-building riotous V8 engines that sound like small but very angry metallic volcanoes going off. The company knows that those days are numbered, of course, and recently confirmed that it was planning various electric AMG models, including hybrid options and theoretically silent-running full EVs.
Only they won’t be silent at all, according to the deeply passionate and old-school boss of AMG, Tobias Moers.
“It’s very important, our sound - you have to establish a kind of easy-to-identify AMG sound in the world of electric driving,” Moers says.
“It could sound like a V8, but this feels very strange in an electric vehicle. You can do like a Pod Racer. We tried that, too. We’ve been on that journey of trying to find a sound since two years now.
“I meet my guys, my team working on that, once a month, and we discuss about the progress and where to move.
“If you have a high-power car with a lot of torque, you’re going to end up with low frequency, because that feels more powerful than a Pod Racer.”
Moers is also open to the idea that technology might allow personalisation when it comes to the noises our cars of the future maker. He says it’s quite possible AMG will allow customers to upload their “personal sound” to their cars.
In Australia, then, it might be possible to make your German performance EV sound just like the thumping Holden V8 you lusted after as a teenager, even if that would be a bit weird.
Coming up with something more unique and personal, of course, would not be difficult, and could even be a lot of fun, using an appropriately titled bit of software like “Garage” Band.
Watching the legendary, and loud, Hans Zimmer talk about his work in this exciting new area, it certainly seems like he finds it hugely enjoyable. “I’ll tell you the truth, we’re using BMW, they’re giving us the tools to create a new sense of music, a new music that hasn’t existed before, and a new instrument to play it with,” Zimmer says..
Essentially, though, he says what he’s doing is what he’s always done with films - adding a sense of character through the addition of sounds.
“It’s what I have done all my life; I’ve done nothing but give characters something that goes beyond what you see, beyond vision,” he explains. “The only reason you have music in films is you’ve run out of things to say, and run out of beautiful images to show.”
The last word, surprisingly, should go to young Renzo Vitale, from BMW, who fully agrees with Zimmer about the emotional resonance of those memories of hearing your parents’ car coming up your street.
“Sound is memory, if you think about it, that’s what it is,” Vitale beams.
“And now, we are designing the memories of the children of tomorrow.”