No more combustion engines, the car of tomorrow will be silent, and will offer multiple services to occupy its occupants. Renzo Vitale, sound designer at BMW, reveals his work to (re) invent these sounds.
JDN. What is your role as a sound designer at BMW?
Renzo Vitale. I am responsible for defining the sound language of all ranges of electric vehicles of the brands BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce. I compose the exterior and interior sounds of these vehicles, which also includes the sound symbols, that is to say the sounds that are there to inform the driver of certain features of the vehicle such as the fact of fastening his seat belt, the flashing, warning sounds, etc. BMW is a brand that wants to convey feelings of joy and excitement, and these sounds, like music, help convey emotions.
Why is it necessary to create sounds for the electric car even though the vehicle is inherently silent ?
Because the legislator imposes it. The external sounds of a vehicle are primarily there to signal its presence to pedestrians. For example, they are essential for alerting hard of hearing or blind people that a vehicle is approaching. BMW had also taken the lead by becoming, in 2013, one of the first car manufacturers to introduce exterior sounds for its range of electric vehicles. Since last year, it is no longer possible for a driver to cut the exterior sounds of his vehicle.
Legislation requires electric vehicles to emit an external sound similar to that of a combustion engine. Isn't it a little surprising then that the electric vehicle is an opportunity to make cities quieter? ?
It is true that I cannot help but smile when I think of the point of view of lawmakers. They see the car as they've always known it, without realizing that things are changing. However, the sound emitted by the electric vehicle, from the way the energy is generated, has nothing to do with that of a combustion engine. There is no more mechanical entity in motion, no more cylinder and no more… combustion. So why would you want to apply an identical sound to a completely different entity? It's a conceptual problem, and I believe that by using the same sound textures as in the past, we will miss an opportunity to invent something new.
So, what is your margin for innovating and creating new sound textures?
The good news is that there is room for interpretation since the legislator does not clearly define the noise of a combustion engine. If you listen to the sound of the engines of vehicles made over the past 70 years, you realize that they are all different. It's actually more of a direction given to builders. There is nevertheless an element which remains identical in principle: that of acceleration. We are all used to hearing sound with higher frequencies as a vehicle accelerates (hear below).
What are your sources of inspiration?
First, I spend a lot of time chatting with my colleagues in the marketing, design, engineering, etc. departments. They are in charge of defining the identity of BMW cars and it is therefore essential to collaborate and collect certain information. Our brand has evolved with its customers and today's BMW car has nothing to do with that of the 1950s and 1960s. I then draw on different sources of inspiration that I draw from my daily life or from works of art and which I note in a notebook. I then shut myself up in my studio to develop fairly conceptual ideas from these inspirations. After that, I collect acoustic information about the vehicle model, because the sound of each car is different depending on its design. It's only then that I start to explore different sound textures.
What must these sounds include to be retained and integrated into BMW vehicles ?
"The sound of the Start buttons is one of the first that we created with the famous composer Hans Zimmer"
My method is to focus on the BMW personality. I therefore wrote a language that could represent the brand through keywords such as "visionary", "elegant", "minimalist", etc. These words were invaluable in defining the character of future sounds. In particular, this allows me to define the 'genetic code' of a sound. The objective here is to establish a sound language faithful to the values of the brand which are, for example, innovation, joy, independence or even aesthetics. All these elements can be transcribed in different ways through sounds. Once created, we listen to the first internal tests with our employees in the product, design, marketing, engineering, etc. departments. Once validated, we confront these sounds with people outside the company.
Let's take a concrete example with the sound of the Start button on BMW models (above): what was the composition process ?
This is one of the first sounds we created with the famous composer Hans Zimmer for BMW. We spent five days in a studio in Santa Monica to make it. As regards sound inside the vehicle, there was no particular legal constraint here. To compose it, we preferred to imagine a very precise scene: the owner of the vehicle must go to work on a Monday morning in the middle of winter. This person, badly awake, goes down to his garage then enters his vehicle, where the temperature is very low, before pressing the "Start" button. What emotion can we communicate to that person at this time to make the start of the day more enjoyable? Our goal was to kind of send him a message of hope and comfort. We kept this idea in mind throughout the composition process. This sound, which will be fitted to all vehicles in BMW's electric and hybrid range from July 2020, may last only two seconds, but it is very complex. If you listen carefully, you will notice that it also incorporates female voices at the end. We wanted to integrate a human aspect into this sound and in particular a feminine touch in a sector that is reputed to be very masculine.
In the era of the autonomous and intelligent vehicle, how do you see the human-machine relationship evolving?
"We have the opportunity to create a more respectful sound environment"
We are working on a number of projects in this area but I cannot communicate on this subject at the moment. These vehicles will be released in 2028/29 and we are looking at several scenarios. At CES in Las Vegas, in particular, we presented the concept of a vehicle interior. The aim was to show how the experience with the car would become more interactive with, for example, the possibility for the driver to put his seat in a horizontal position and to view landscapes during his journey. The sound texture is here composed in real time by the vehicle itself and will adapt to its driver. This is the direction I am taking today: to consider the vehicle as an intelligent composer capable of understanding what passengers need without them having to ask for it. Ideally, the autonomous and intelligent vehicle of tomorrow may be able to understand your personality at a specific time and adapt to it, for example playing relaxing sounds if you are stressed.
What sounds do you think the cities of the future will make ?
When our roads are entirely occupied by electric vehicles, we will be able to truly reduce noise pollution in cities, especially since legislation exists to regulate the practices of manufacturers. I think that the sound volume will be reduced overall but also that the character and texture of these sounds will also be quite different. These machines are part of our environment. But with the electrification of vehicles and cities, we have the opportunity to create a sound environment that is more respectful for others.
Renzo Vitale is an artist, designer and sound engineer. In 2015, he joined the BMW Research and Innovation center. Since 2017, he has been responsible in particular for developing all the sounds for the brand's electric ranges, in collaboration with the composer Hans Zimmer. Renzo Vitale graduated with a PhD in acoustics from RWTH Aachen University and has two masters in electronic engineering and piano. His last album "Disorders" was released in 2019.