MUNICH, GERMANY — “BMW has a history of iconic engines,” says Jens Thiemer, the senior vice-president for BMW Brand Management. “Think about the six cylinder engines, think about the famous four cylinder engines for the DTM (the German touring car championship racing series), up to a 12-cylinder, what have you, all those engines with iconic sounds, easily recognised.”
That’s in the past, or at least it will be. Electric cars are coming, and they’ll be mostly silent, which would remove a crucial element of driving pleasure. The obvious solution is to add some sound back.
“We at BMW think silence is good, but if you want to hear something, an iconic sound would be even better,” says Dr Thiemer.
Enter Hans Zimmer, Oscar-winning soundtrack composer.
The German national — who was behind the music to everything from the Lion King to the Dark Knight Trilogy to Gladiator to, well, countless others — says he’s “sort of” from Munich and still maintains a home there. He identifies with BMW because the brand is a part of his family experience. “It’s a story I’ve never actually told before, but when I was a small child, it was the sound of the engine at night, hearing my mother come home or my father drive home, I would wait up and I would recognise precisely the sound of the engine, and that was the sound of things being safe,” he says.
Zimmer says those engines sounds formed a part of the aural landscape that led him to become a composer, against his parents’ advice.
At NextGen, Zimmer plays a sample of what’s to come, a snatch of something to accompany hard acceleration that he created with Renzo Vitale (pictured above, left), a sound designer at BMW. It’s a whirling, whooshing wall of sound that rises in pitch and intensity, a bit like the soundtrack to the Dolby or THX promo before a movie, with different timbres creating sonic layers. It’s interesting, to say the least, and once it catches on it’ll help you tell you’re in a BMW for sure. Have a listen here!
BMW plans to make a variety of soundtracks available for its upcoming electric cars, but they’ll be a cost option. Owners will be able to download the “BMW IconicSounds Electric” packs via an over-the-air upgrade.
Zimmer says coming up with car sounds actually isn’t too different from writing music for a film. Both are about telling a story, he says. “Constantly, I have fictitious people in front of my mind’s eye, and I’m trying to send them on a journey, and I want it to be a fantastic journey,” he says.
The other thing that motivates him is the chance to take part in the car industry’s transformation, now that it finds itself at a crossroads. “We can make the world sound beautiful again,” he says. That mission sounds good to us.