Electric car sound: What will the Batmobile have to do with it?
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Electric vehicles can be so exciting to drive that it feels like you’re riding lightning, or a rocket, and they can look pretty wild, too, in the case of Tesla’s Cybertruck. But the sad fact is that, so far at least, they sound utterly awful, and about as exciting as your most ancient auntie drawing breath before giving you a whiskery kiss.
Yes, occasionally they make little whistles and whirrs, but mainly what they make is sucking sounds; as in they suck.
The Germans (and no doubt the Italians, one day) will simply not let this stand, and as both BMW and Mercedes-Benz move to bring electrification into the world of their sportier cars - the ones fettled by the M division and AMG - they’re preparing to do something radical about it.
In BMW’s case, this involves hiring an Oscar-winning film composer who not only made The Lion King sing, but worked on providing the sounds, and the soundtrack, that made the Batmobile in The Dark Knight (aka the Tumbler) so damn cool.
Hans Zimmer, 62, has scored more than 150 movies in his time, many of them no doubt your favourites (if Inception isn’t, it should be, along with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Gladiator, Rain Man and The Simpsons Movie), yet it seems in some ways he was born to create the sounds that the next generation of high-tech, EV cars from M will make.
Zimmer was raised in Munich, the home of BMW, and used to stand on his balcony, listening to all the Beemers driving past, yet he was always able to pick out the sound of his mother’s car, “and when I heard it coming up the street, I knew everything was going to be okay, so it was a very significant sound for me”.
In his typical grand style, Zimmer says he sees this project as an opportunity to create “the memories for the children of tomorrow”.
“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.” he says.
“In the very near future, your car will be able to speak to you in a beautifully customised way.”
When it came to creating the warping, whooshing and explosive noises for BMW’s crazy-futuristic Vision M Next car, as well as coming up with a universal “start-up sound” that will soon grace every cary in the company’s range, Zimmer leant into many inspirations - everything from a favourite spiralling German sculpture made of glass to human voices, art installations and, of course, a touch of the Batmobile.
“Obviously I worked on the soundtrack for The Dark Knight, so I made the music that went with it, but I was also sitting next to Richard King, the sound designer on the film, as he came up with the noises the Tumbler would make, so I worked very closely with him on that, which was great fun, and he used what’s called a Shepard tone, which I’ve also used,” Zimmer explains.
At this point we’ll let King himself explain what he was going for with his Batmobile:
“It had to sound huge, like a military vehicle crossed with a dragster, so for this, we recorded the sound of big race-boat engines, adding large animal roars and growls for emphasis,” King recalled.
“I used the concept of the Shepard tone to make the sound appear to continually rise in pitch. The basic idea is to slightly overlap a sound with a distinct pitch in different octaves. When played on a keyboard, it gives the illusion of greater and greater speed; it appears unstoppable.”
The sounds the Vision M Next uses to provide a sense of speed is more Back to the Future II flying-car than animalistic roar, but it uses that same trick.
Zimmer describes the Shepard tone as being the musical version of M.C. Escher’s endless staircases, “a sound that seems to constantly move upwards, even though it’s all an illusion”.
The result is quite fabulous, and one that Zimmer is delighted with.
“The goal was to create a car 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 gives a booming laugh, before his big voice turns conspiratorial.
“I’ll tell you the truth, we’re using BMW, they’re giving us the tools to create a new sense of music, a music that hasn’t existed before, and a new instrument to play it with.”
For drivers of M cars, of course, it’s an instrument they will control via their right foot and the throttle. Sounds like fun.
It’s fair to say that BMW M’s most obvious competitor, the AMG skunkworks that turns Mercedes-Benzes into weapons, is taking an entirely different approach from the sci-fi symphonic one.
After announcing earlier this year that it would build various electrified models, including hybrids and full EVs, AMG boss Tobias Moers explained that these new vehicles would need to deliver all of the brand’s key performance characteristics, including a booming, explosive soundtrack.
So even when the famously deafening AMG V8’s are no longer being built, you’ll still get angry noises from your ballistic Benz.
“It’s very important for our sound - you have to establish a kind of easy-to-identify AMG sound in the world of electric driving,” Moers explained.
“It could sound like a V8, but this feels very strange. You can do like a (Star Wars) Pod Racer. We did that. We’ve been on that journey 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.”
It sounds like Star Wars is out, and something more traditionally AMG - barking and bonkers - is in, yet it also seems like there’s quite a bit of work to be done. It is, of course, a huge decision to make, and Moers would only drop the slightest of hints on the way he thinks the company will go.
“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,” he explained.
One other possibility, of course, is that the sound your sporty EV makes might be up to you, and frankly it’s surprising that Tesla hasn’t offered this option yet, but it seems AMG probably will.
“The possibility is always there, even the possibility it gives you maybe the chance to upload your personal sound,” Moers added.
What is clear is that, in the near future, the sounds EVs make really won’t suck any more. And that should be music to any enthusiast’s ears.