How BMW creates the score for electric driving pleasure

7 min reading time
When Hans Zimmer thinks of the sound of BMW, he thinks back to his childhood. In a collaboration with the BMW Group, the Academy Award winner has teamed up with BMW Group Sound Design to develop special drive sounds for the new BMW electric vehicles – BMW IconicSounds Electric. We take a look back at his own earliest soundtracks and the acoustic journey from the initial idea to the sound premiere in the production vehicle.

5 January 2022

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What gives a film its identity? Good set design, an innovative script, a visual concept. But more than anything, it’s the right soundtrack that truly brings the story to life. The same applies to vehicles. Distinctiveness in design and chassis create a defining driving experience. But it is the sound this drive generates that is directly connected to emotions. For example, fans and experts have always been able to recognize BMW models (➜ Read more: This is how to read BMW’s model names) the sound of their combustion engine. How do you transpose this emotion to the supposedly silent, electrically powered vehicles? “Each BMW has its own character, which is reflected in its sound,” reveals Zimmer. This applies in particular to the electric models, but in a new interpretation.

BMW IconicSounds Electric will bring new and emotionally rich soundscapes into the brand’s electric model line-up. They have been created as part of a collaboration between the BMW Group, BMW Group Creative Director Sound Renzo Vitale and Grammy and Academy Award-winning film score composer Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has now experienced the sound premiere of his final composition in the electric production vehicle during a visit to Munich (➜ Read more: Everything about charging e-cars).

A new chapter in an acoustic journey that began in his childhood.

As a child, I used to wait eagerly for my parents to come home. I could hear the exact sound of my mother’s BMW and my father’s BMW and tell the two sounds apart. The sound of the car arriving always meant security for me.
Hans Zimmer
In the video: How BMW gives electric models their own identity with individual sounds

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Electricity consumption 23,0–19,3 kWh/100km (WLTP)
Electric range (WLTP) 372–631 km

The sound of a sense of comfort

During his nearly 40-year career spanning over 200 film and television projects, the 11-time Oscar-nominated composer has scored the soundtracks of blockbusters such as "Gladiator," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "The Lion King," the film that justifiably won him his award. Zimmer also developed the score for visions of the future such as “Blade Runner 2049” and the remake of “Dune,” in both cases working alongside director Denis Villeneuve. Zimmer developed his own sound textures for “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” – a kind of acoustic identity for Gotham City. The composer is fascinated by the sounds of big cities. They lend their unique character to the life there, the architecture and nature. As far as Zimmer is concerned, sounds and tones are inextricably intertwined with emotions and memories. From an early age, as he reveals to us.

Electricity consumption 19,1-16,1   kWh/100km (WLTP)
Electric range (WLTP) 493-590 km

“As a child, I used to wait eagerly for my parents to come home. I could hear the exact sound of my mother’s BMW and my father’s BMW and tell the two sounds apart. The sound of the car arriving always meant security to me, a sense of comfort, that everything was all in its place. Mom and Dad were home. It was like a soothing acoustic signal that it was bedtime. I used to stand on a chair and look out the window – just waiting for that sound.”

It was the beginning of a passion for sound. Zimmer also learned early on from his parents to look to the future. “My father was a scientist before he passed away in 1963. In 1962, he had all his company’s cars, especially the BMWs, rebuilt and equipped with catalytic converters. Because at the time, as a chemist, he realized that we had to protect the planet. So I grew up with a very green outlook on life. I was just five years old then.” Decades later, Zimmer finds himself actively riding the new electric mobility wave. This is delightful terrain for the composer. “I find electric cars especially thrilling. Particularly when I hear them with our tones and sounds. Our sound gives the vehicles an identity. The musical scale only has 12 notes, and we used three of them to create the BMW sound.”

On the trail of harmony

BMW IconicSounds Electric started out as a collaboration between the BMW Group and Grammy and Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer with the objective of developing a revolutionary sound design and concepts for the fleet of BMW electric vehicles and ultimately creating the sounds of the future. The composer was clearly delighted to be part of the project, saying: “For the first time since the industrial revolution, we have a unique opportunity to redesign and redefine the sounds of our cities. And we are not restricted in any way by mechanical limits. It’s about creating something that becomes an emotional experience.” Zimmer has often developed sounds for cars and vehicles to form the acoustic background of films – sounds that could be plausible but were in fact purely made up – such as with the Batmobile. How did he go about making emotions palpable in a vehicle that will drive the streets in real life? “As a musician. And I don’t mean learning chords and music or playing an instrument,” Zimmer emphasizes. The crucial word in music, he said, is playing. “You play music. To play music, you have to be playful. When you embrace a bit of the musician’s playfulness, life gets a little better. One of my guiding principles was to give these cars beautiful, playful sounds. Noises and sounds that give drivers a comforting, cozy feeling even on a rainy morning and put a smile on their faces on their drive to work.”

The soundscapes developed for My Modes are a composition of various forms of sound, some of which are more traditional, while others are completely new creations. Human voices and classical instruments are at the base, while mechanical sounds and unusual combinations combine to create different tones.
Renzo Vitale

Creative Director Sound BMW Group

From a blank canvas to an acoustic adventure

During the creative process with the BMW team, Zimmer and Vitale aim to utilize the sounds of BMW IconicSounds Electric to provide a white canvas for occupants to color with their own emotions. “The driving noise of all-electric BMW vehicles varies within the model-specific defined sound spectrum depending on which My Mode has been selected. Five My Modes in all create a holistic user experience in the interior, tuned to the driver’s personal preferences. Each My Mode focuses on different sides of the vehicle’s character. That is also something that can be heard in its sound,” explains Vitale. In My Mode Personal – the default setting in the BMW iX (the BMW i4 is preset to Comfort) – BMW IconicSounds Electric uses a spherical sound pattern and many tonal components to convey a basic acoustic mood that expresses the vehicle's progressive and independent character. The sound variant you hear in the interior when Personal or Comfort mode is selected also forms the basis for the driving sound that is heard outside by the acoustic pedestrian warning system. My Mode Sport forms a contrast to the harmonious and elegant sound in the My Mode Personal or Comfort. The active driving experience is given much more emphasis in this setting. The soundscape in this mode has a pronounced acoustic presence and extremely dynamic modulation. This gives the driver unmistakable acoustic feedback on the engine’s power delivery and the current driving state.

The sound in My Mode Expressive, on the other hand, is complemented by high-contrast neon colors and abstract patterns on the BMW Curved Display. Its basic tone is a violin. When accelerating, another, higher sound structure is superimposed, with the harmony changing in several stages with increasing speed. The first complete chord is heard at 37 mph (60 km/h), followed by a second complete chord at 75 mph (120 km/h). On the other hand, the pitch remains the same at a constant speed, while the volume is significantly reduced to concentrate the attention on the quiet running of the drive. This acoustic experience is in stark contrast to the basic interior mood created by the soundtrack in My Mode Relax. When this setting is chosen, the focus switches to well-being, harmony and relaxation. Matching the graphics on the BMW Curved Display, which are inspired by coasts, rivers and lakes, the result is a soft, subtle and harmonious sound composition that takes you on a calm and relaxed drive. “This soundscape alleviates the driver’s tension and helps them actively leave stress behind,” says Renzo Vitale, describing the concept. It is only in My Mode Efficient that the acoustic feedback is completely suppressed. The driver also has the option of deactivating the drive sound in the other My Modes using the corresponding iDrive menu.

Start out on your own acoustic journey

“The point of a blank canvas, after all, is to be open to surprises,” Zimmer explains. “It's not for Renzo and me to tell anyone what they should feel when they are listening and driving. We want to open a door and give them the opportunity to explore their own acoustic journey. We try to humanize the technology in the car, humanize the experience, humanize the journey. We now think about the journey from A to B through our ears – and so too should the driving experience of BMW be transformed into a sonic adventure."

Author: Markus Löblein; Photos: BMW; Video: BMW