Novelnyt speaks to Renzo Vitale, an Italian sound designer, acoustic engineer and musician working for BMW to design how the otherwise-silent electric vehicles of the future will sound.
Novelnyt (UR): We are writing these questions to you from Queenstown as we prepare to test-drive some stunning BMWs on ice and snow. Other than the helicopters that dropped us off… it is quite silent up here. How do you envision the electric vehicles of the future fitting within such silent spaces or within the sounds of nature?
Renzo Vitale (RV): Silence is one of the most beautiful conditions for humans because it creates a sense of communion within ourselves and with our surroundings. But sound is also information. In fact, there are legal requirements in many countries that prescribe the presence of a sound for electric vehicles as a warning for pedestrians. For me, it is very important that our sounds for electric and electrified BMW vehicles represents the brand values of BMW. People should recognise that an approaching vehicle is a BMW by hearing it. At the same time, the sound must fulfil the important warning function but not be a disturbance for pedestrians. Therefore, we aim to create sounds that can integrate with the natural soundscape that surrounds us.
Bearing this in mind, we just presented BMW IconicSounds Electric, together with Hans Zimmer, for the Vision M NEXT at the #NEXTGen in Munich. For BMW IconicSounds Electric, we envision sounds that celebrate the beauty and complexity of our vehicles and are able to move people.
Novelnyt: It is understandable to try and give an external noise to electric cars to prevent accidents, but to have that noise be audible inside, is that just nostalgia for how petrol cars used to behave? Why not leave them silent inside?
RV: Silence is a very precious condition for the driver, which we will always preserve. We take the acoustic comfort inside our vehicles very seriously and we put in a lot of effort to reduce any potential source of noise. However, we know that sound is one of the most powerful mediums for conveying emotions. The absence of sound in the electric car might leave a gap in the emotionality of the driving experience for some customers. These are the customers for whom we are going to offer BMW IconicSounds Electric. With Hans Zimmer, we have the perfect partner to create sounds that can move our customers beyond former boundaries.
Novelnyt: What was your initial inspiration for the sounds of the M Next – were you in any way inspired by the sounds of the cars that inspired its design (the Turbo, the M3 and the i8)? Or was it something else?
RV: Besides the exterior and interior design of the car, which features lots of captivating elements, the development and composition for the sound of the Vision M NEXT was inspired mainly by light installations from James Turrell and Ólafur Elíasson. In particular, Turrell realised works known for the illusion of an infinite space, which creates a magical experience for the spectator. The idea behind the Vision M NEXT is to recreate this sense of wonder through sound.
In the Vision M NEXT, the driver experiences three stages of sound textures that gradually shift into each other during acceleration: They are propulsive, morphing and elevating. [Click here for a sample of how the M Next sounds.]
Novelnyt: It must be exciting to work in a field that could, in a way, define the sounds of our future city streets. It is almost science fiction. How do you start such a task?
RV: We are witnessing a paradigm shift in mobility today, from vehicles propelled by combustion engines to electric vehicles. Here, we have the unique opportunity to create something entirely new. I see designing people’s future acoustic environments as a privilege and as a great responsibility. Working on this, together with Hans Zimmer, is a special honour for me, both as an acoustic engineer and as a musician.
I always begin with something that moves me. To me, the process of creating the sound is like a treasure hunt: I experiment with new sounds by recording them and breaking them down into their components. In the end, individual fragments remain, from which something completely new can emerge. We also used a similar approach during the brainstorming and working sessions with Hans Zimmer.
Novelnyt: What is your favourite car (petrol) sounds… if any?
RV: As an Italian, it goes without saying that I feel related to Ferrari. In particular, I remember the first experience as a child of listening very closely to a Maranello 550. It’s something that you don’t forget. But I also have to say that I was equally impressed hearing the iconic BMW M1 ProCar for the first time.