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Hans Zimmer and BMW Soundtrack the Future of the Electric Car

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While practical things like fuel economy and leather seating are key, many drivers also crave the seductive purr of an engine when travelling from A to B. This poses a challenge for the slew of new, virtually silent electric vehicles hitting the market – how to balance the need to be green with sounding mean. Such was the quandary faced by the technical team at BMW’s Munich headquarters. With the advent of the brand’s new electric sedan, the BMW Concept i4, came the realization that they’d need to enhance the driver’s sonic experience. So, naturally, they called Hans Zimmer.

November 3, 2020
Hans Zimmer and Renzo Vitale chatting together in studio
Creative Director of Sound for BMW Group Renzo Vitale and renowned composer Hans Zimmer (pictured left to right) in Zimmer’s Los Angeles studio.

Under the newly created BMW IconicSounds Electric division, the universally lauded German composer of legendary scores from The Lion King to Gladiator was paired up with Italian pianist and sound designer Renzo Vitale, who works at the Research and Innovation Center of BMW Group. Their mission? To craft the BMW Concept i4’s soundscape, right down to the sound of turning off the vehicle. “We can allow the interiors of cars to set moods and give people an experience that they can control, that humanizes the vehicle and is not tied to the sound of a rumbling petrol engine anymore,” Zimmer says.

The sleek interior of the BMW Concept i4 from a driver's perspective

The collaboration began at BMW’s Munich headquarters. There, Vitale liaised with the automaker’s design and marketing departments to sketch a concept. Then, he’d brief Zimmer, jetting to his Santa Monica studio to experiment with an enviable collection of instruments, synthesizers and voices. “The list of possible elements is endless,” Zimmer says. “We recorded countless versions until we finally found the one that sounded right.”

The sound studio at Santa Monica, California

For the BMW Concept i4, the soundscapers worked with the ephemeral concept of “threshold.” “Whenever you create sounds that don’t exist, you have to use an unconventional approach,” Vitale says, likening the car to a performative-art installation. Unlike with combustion vehicles, electric models don’t give you pedal-to-engine feedback so it’s hard to tell whether the car is responding at all. There’s also no ignition sound. To address these realities, Vitale and Zimmer worked on three key soundscapes: the start-stop function and two sound “narratives” to enhance the driving experience. On the ignition front, the pair played with glass to create a sense of lightness, with the start-stop tone building to an open chord using female singers. “We involved women’s voices to offset an industry that is perceived as hyper-masculine,” says Vitale. “It symbolized the beginning of a new journey.” The pair toiled for five days over a sound that tops out at two seconds.

A rendering of the front of the BMW Concept i4

The narratives came more quickly, diverging into two modes: “core” and “sport.” In core mode, which Vitale compares to driving in cruise control, the sound is lighter and hovers in the mid- to high-frequency range. Sport is more dynamic, with a low-frequency rumbling presence.

Concept i4: Sport — BMW
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Only time will tell whether BMW drivers will find the pair’s marriage of art and technology in the currently in-development model on a par with the high-octane thrill of shifting gears in a gas-thirsty car. As Vitale says, all of this is new territory. “The novelty of this project is the opportunity to not only shape the sound of future electric vehicles, but also to shape the sounds of future cities,” Zimmer adds. “The most beautiful sound in the world to me is silence. But out of silence, a new world can be created.”

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