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Hans Zimmer on the benefits of Spatial Audio and his “weird relationship” with Jony Ive: “I don't want to hear stereo, because you took half of my sonic world away”

Hans Zimmer
(Image credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Fresh from scoring Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movie, Hans Zimmer has been opening up to Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 about not only his involvement in that project, but also the relationship between music and technology and how he first came to experience Spatial Audio in a pair of headphones that were gifted to him by former Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive.

On his close working relationship with Villeneuve, Zimmer says: “Usually, when you have two creative parties, somebody says, ‘Hey, I have an idea’. And then, you have to explain the idea. And then the other person goes, ‘Well, this…’. They modify it, or they want to change it, or they think it's just a terrible idea, or they think it's a good idea, whatever. So, a discussion evolves.

“With me and Denis on this movie, nobody would say, ‘Hey, I have an idea’. Somebody would start a sentence and the other person would finish it.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Zimmer says that the secret to working with other musicians is to maintain a sense of playfulness (“the operative word in music, after all, is play”) and discusses how he and collaborator Mike Einziger, of Incubus fame, manage the relationship between music and technology.

“Mike and I are great believers in integrating technology into our work,” he explains. “I mean, which seems so obvious, but it's not, because the 20th century somehow made a great divide between the orchestra and orchestral instruments and computers and synthesizers and all that stuff.

“Mike was a guitarist, and I started out as a lame guitarist, but we realised that every instrument is a piece of technology of its time.

“The violin is technology of its time, the church organ. I mean, for Interstellar I did a lot of research. Actually what that means, I spent a morning reading up on big pipe organs, but the thing that got me was, by the beginning of the 17th century, the church organ was not only completed as design, as technological design, but it was the most complicated piece of human engineering, and it was in the service of music. It stayed as the most complicated, most fabulous piece of human technology until the telephone exchange.

“These ideas, that technology and music have to go hand in hand. The development of music has to go hand in hand.”

Speaking of technology, Apple recently introduced Spatial Audio to its Apple Music service, enabling users to experience Dolby Atmos in a pair of headphones. It turns out that Zimmer is not only a fan of this development, but also that it came to his attention via an unusual but very famous source.

“I never listen to my soundtracks because usually they're on stereo,” Zimmer told Lowe. “I don't think you can see in this room right now, but I basically, I always work in surround. So, as soon as the thing becomes an MP3 or whatever it is and we are just in stereo and the immersive quality goes by the wayside, I don't want to hear it anymore because you took half of my sonic world away.

“So, in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of working on Dune, I am sent a gift by Jony Ive, a pair of headphones, right? And we have this weird relationship. We've never met, but we have this weird relationship where he sends me something and just has a little note going, ‘I made this’. And then I write as a thank you note, I write a little tune by hand and I sent that back to him and so, it's like things we made, right?

“And so, these headphones arrive and I put them on and they're amazing and I suddenly realised, ‘Oh, we can do immersive. We can do Dolby Atmos. We can do all this,’ and I phone my friends at Dolby and I say, ‘We have to do this. I want to go and do the whole [Dune] soundtrack again and I certainly want to do the CDs again and I want to do all this immersive experience,’ and I phoned Denis and I phoned all my guys and go, ‘You got to listen to these headphones,’ to which I of course get the reply, ‘Well, they don't actually exist. I think you have the only pair.’ So, there was a little bit of that going on.”

Finally, Zimmer had some reassuring words for up and coming composers - particularly those who worry that they might not have the ‘technical’ musical skills required to succeed.

“First of all, you're not a musician,” he says. “You're a dramatist. You know? You are a storyteller and everybody takes for granted that you can play your instrument, or that you can knock out a decent tune, so nobody cares about did you go to Berkeley or did you do anything like that. What they're interested in is are you a good storyteller?

“Secondly, are you a good collaborator? In other words your band needs to include your editor and your director and your writer sometimes. And for me, very importantly, the director of photography, because frequency is frequency, right? So, whatever colour palette he uses I somehow need to reflect in the music I'm using, so he's a big clue.”

You can watch Zane Lowe’s full interview with Hans Zimmer on Apple Music.

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Group Content Manager for MusicRadar, specialising in all things tech. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 20 of which I’ve also spent writing about music technology. 

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