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Dune: Hans Zimmer & Friends

"Unleash The Synthesizers!" Creating A Movie Sound World By Sam Inglis
Published April 2024

Hans Zimmer and Friends: SOS Front Cover 0424Photo: Various. Montage: Mick Reilly

For the Dune movies, Hans Zimmer and his team of extraordinary musicians didn’t just create a score. They created an entire world.

“When I was a kid and I went to see a science fiction movie,” remembers Hans Zimmer, “it would be set in a galaxy far, far from here, thousands of years in the future — and then I would hear the string section start. I’d go, ‘Really? Is that it? Nothing new has happened since then?’ Why would I have a romantic Northern European orchestra? Let’s go and invent instruments. Let’s go and build things!”

Soundtrack composer and sound designer extraordinaire for the Dune movies, Hans Zimmer.Soundtrack composer and sound designer extraordinaire for the Dune movies, Hans Zimmer.Photo: Lee KirbyThe composer has done just that on his scores for the Dune: Part One and Dune: Part Two movies. Based on Frank Herbert’s classic sci‑fi novels and directed by Denis Villeneuve, the second instalment is about to hit cinemas worldwide at the time of writing, with musical ambition and creativity dialled up to 11.

Other Worlds

“It starts off,” says Zimmer, “with creating a sound world. One of the things that I’ve always done is that I spend a long time looking at the colour palette and talking to the director of photography. What’s this going to look like? What colours are you going to be using? What’s the colour palette of this planet? And that seeps over into the colour palette of the music.”

Creating a sound palette for Dune meant assembling an extraordinary team. Vocalist Loire Cotler, guitarist Guthrie Govan, flautist Pedro Eustache, bassist Juan ‘Snow Owl’ Herreros and cellist Tina Guo are all long‑term collaborators and soloists in his World Of Hans Zimmer and Hans Zimmer Live spectaculars. Their sonic contributions to the first Dune movie were mostly remote, as production took place during the Covid pandemic. Much sampling took place, often with the idea of creating otherworldly or alien substitutes for conventional instruments.

Tina Guo and Guthrie Govan take a break during sessions at Remote Control.Tina Guo and Guthrie Govan take a break during sessions at Remote Control.

“For Dune: Part One, our string section is Guthrie,” laughs Hans. “It starts off with an idea, and I go to the musicians with that. Like, ‘Hey Guthrie, can you sample your E‑Bow guitar so that it becomes my string section?’ or ‘Pedro, can you just go and make me the sound — in pitch, in tune — of the wind whistling through the desert?’ So there’s a lot of sampling going on, and then there’s an enormous amount of creating sounds going on.”

“Hans wanted his ‘string section’ orchestrations to sound somewhat otherworldly,” expands Guthrie Govan, “so I tracked a lot of those string parts using slide guitar, fretless guitar and E‑Bow.

“We were touring in Europe when Hans requested raw materials for an E‑Bow‑based sample instrument, so it became part of my hotel room ritual to set up a Fractal FM‑9 processor and record as many long notes as I could bear. For the sake of my sanity, I had to divide the recording process into multiple sessions! I think I must have recorded something in the region of eight passes for every alternate note on the instrument’s register, doing my best to find a balance between a touch of vibrato and the required stability of pitch — a strangely hypnotic process, as every note needed to be eight bars long! I was pleasantly surprised by the sound of the finished instrument.

“We also made more extensive use of feedback on this new score [for Dune: Part Two]. Whilst on the road, we would set up in one of the backstage areas and run my Fractal FM‑9 through a powered monitor cranked up to obscene volumes! I discovered that something fun happens if you record guitar feedback with a high‑gain overdriven tone but also capture the DI guitar signal and then reamp it through a clean amp setting… the result is a haunting noise which could never have occurred in real time.”

On The Edge

“I think what we’re going for, ultimately,” says Hans, “is the extreme of the instrument. What is it that doesn’t exist out there in the world? The one thing we have in common is, you know, how can we make a sonic world that hadn’t existed before? So by the end of it, we create an orchestral palette which is not the palette of the normal Western European orchestra.”

Key to making this work is that the musicians Hans works with are not only virtuosos in the conventional sense. They’re also sonic experimenters, who are keen to explore the outer limits of what’s possible with their instruments. “Geniuses like Hans don’t care about what’s possible or not,” says Pedro Eustache. “They have a vision, they have a mission, and it’s up to us to accomplish that.”

On Dune: Part Two, fulfilling Hans’ vision certainly required the impossible of Eustache. For the Hans Zimmer Live tour that followed Part 1, the composer decided to start the show with Loire Cotler alone on stage, singing one of the main themes. “She starts singing very quietly as she walks onto the stage and goes through the whole length of the stage,” explains Pedro. “And Hans is crazy enough that for Dune: Part Two he goes ‘Pedro. I want you to play the theme on the duduk.’ I’m like ‘Are you crazy? That’s not in the duduk’s range.’ So what am I gonna do?”

What Eustache did was to invent a new instrument: the chromatic duduk. “Thanks to Hans challenging me, I had to come up with stuff that does not exist. Which enriches me and makes me even more unique because then I have access to things other people don’t have.”

Woodwind maestro Pedro Eustache holds the chromatic duduk he created in order to play one of the main themes from <em>Dune</em>.Woodwind maestro Pedro Eustache holds the chromatic duduk he created in order to play one of the main themes from Dune.

“The material I’ve been involved with for most of my musical career is considered at the extreme of vocal repertoire,” says Loire Cotler. “So I view these seemingly impossible vocal tasks that Hans is asking as an opportunity to take me farther in a direction that I’ve been passionate about for many years. When Hans’ musical ideas are on fire and he starts to give us some outrageous directions… the only course of action is to grab our instruments by the guts, and leave our bodies behind!

Loire Cotler’s extroardinary vocals have become a core part of Hans Zimmer’s live performances, as well as featuring heavily on scores like <em>Dune</em>.Loire Cotler’s extroardinary vocals have become a core part of Hans Zimmer’s live performances, as well as featuring heavily on scores like Dune.Photo: Semmel Concerts / RCI Global / Frank Embacher

“I did quite a bit of intimate, close‑miked, gentler, inside‑your‑ear whispery rhythms and breathy rhythmic hits, where I emulated a shakuhahchi hit, inspired by Pedro of course! Another impossible Hans assignment was to create some ‘white noise grooves’ using vocal percussion, and then track them up in a bunch of meters. And then of course the more traditional singing, like in the opening and closing of ‘House Atreides’ on Dune Sketchbook, where I’m practically kissing the mic.”

“Hans is always very enthusiastic about the idea of pushing an instrument’s boundaries,” agrees Guthrie Govan. “I remember seeing a little twinkle in his eye when I brought an eight‑string guitar to the rehearsals for our first tour together. The next time I saw him in his studio, he had treated himself to a nine‑string!”

Up Close

“For me, there was no organic cello,” says Tina Guo, “because we’re on an alien planet and they didn’t have cellos. So we thought, OK, maybe we’ll use the electric cello — and in addition to getting the signal from the instrument, we miked the actual electric cello. It sounds terrible, but it’s terrible in a good way, in a very weird way where it’s like ‘What is that!?’ There’s a lot of weird little sounds, because it’s not supposed to be played that way, but it actually sounds really interesting. It’s barely audible, so if anyone even breathed, we’re like, ‘Oh God, we have to start over again,’ because you could hear everything in the room.”

Electric instruments recorded acoustically played a major role in the <em>Dune</em> sound world.Electric instruments recorded acoustically played a major role in the Dune sound world.

“There was a lot of close miking on the body of instruments that would normally be amplified,” agrees Snow Owl. “They can...

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