Is Hans Zimmer still at the Top of His Scoring Game? Why He’s a Legend

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

All you film-scoring enthusiasts out there, you’re definitely familiar with this man. Yep, I’m talking about none other than Hans Zimmer. Next to John Williams, he’s probably the most noteworthy film scorer in the history of cinema.

If you’ve ever taken a peek at his IMDb, you’d see a whopping 633 titles under his name, and he’s nowhere near retirement! What’s truly amazing is that he’s not just hanging onto his title as one of the best, he’s constantly reinventing himself.

He’s an edgy and modern composer who constantly pushes boundaries, much to the admiration of his peers and directors.

Keeping things fresh over several decades is a tall order, especially in a profession where older composers like John Williams tend to stick to their classic orchestral scoring.

Fresh off the success of the Dune movie, Hans is now juggling Dune 2 and a sequel to the massive hit Top Gun Maverick, which raked in a cool $1.5 billion at the box office. Not to mention, he’s also working on superhero movies like Spider-Man and The Flash.

It’s safe to say that Hans is not just maintaining his scoring prowess, he’s absolutely smashing it out of the park!

So, what’s his secret? How does he manage to stay relevant, push the envelope, and be one of the driving forces behind the modern scoring sound?

Here are some insights I’ve gathered while navigating the world of scoring, analyzing Hans Zimmer’s approach to production, his creative writing process, and his charismatic partnership with world-class directors.

The Hans Zimmer Creative Approach

Thinking Outside The Box

I’ve had the opportunity to chat with Hans Zimmer a couple of times, and let me tell you, he’s an absolute delight! He’s so down-to-earth, full of laughter, and always brimming with joy. He often jokes that his secret weapon is his recklessness.

What he means by that is his ability to consistently think outside the box, take risks, and never settle or repeat his sound. Instead, he strives to keep things fresh, bringing a unique approach to every movie he works on.

Of course, he does weave in elements of his signature sound, which we’ll explore further. He also has this exciting way of brainstorming, getting directors all fired up about themes and music.

I remember reading an article about how he once sent Christopher Nolan over 150 ideas of wild sound design and twisted weirdness while working on Batman. And let’s not forget, he’s a tinkerer at heart! He loves taking both conventional and unconventional instruments and turning them into something entirely new.

I’ll dive into that a bit more in the next section. So, stay tuned!

Question and Answer: Approach to Themes

I’ve got a super cool recommendation for anyone interested in film scoring – the Hans Zimmer MasterClass. Hans, who also does countless interviews and features in tech magazines, offers some great insights from his perspective as a musician.

In this master class, he discusses how many of his themes feel like conversations between phrases. I found this concept fascinating and I’ve noticed it in many of his scores.

Take Inception for example. Despite its emphasis on sound design and ambiance, it has simple motifs or themes that echo each other, creating a dialogue that’s incredibly catchy.

Jam Sessions to Make Sections Organic

Hans isn’t just a giant in the studio, masterfully composing tunes; he’s also a world-touring musician! For the past few years, he’s been filling stadiums with his huge band, playing his film scores all over the planet.

He has a core group of musicians, his muses if you will. Tina Guo graces the cello, Pedro Eustache brings the ethnic woodwind to life, and Steve Mazzaro, a brilliant synth guy, and sometimes co-composer, is also part of this amazing crew.

Check out this super cool video of them jamming together while the director of Wonder Woman and star Gal Gadot join in playing timpani.

Hans has an enormous recording complex called Remote Control right here in Los Angeles. He’s got every instrument you can imagine, including every synthesizer I can think of.

But here’s the kicker: he still loves to jam with many of his top, first-call, A-list musicians to come up with ideas organically. It’s all part of the magic that is Hans.

Next Level Mockups (Unreal Demos!)

Another fun fact about Hans is that before he became a renowned film composer, he was a record producer. So, it’s no surprise that he’s all about getting that high-quality sound, awesome mixes, and cool electronic textures.

He’s actually famous for creating mind-blowing demos, not just unmixed, poorly-sounding idea tracks for themes. We’re talking demo ideas that sound so good, you’d think they were ready to drop on Spotify the next day.

Considering how stressful and time-consuming blockbuster scoring can be, it’s really impressive that he takes the time to make sure everything from his studio sounds top-notch. It really lets the Director feel the energy.

Sure, he’s got some amazing engineers, a jam-packed production studio with all the Analog gear you could dream of, and some of the best programmers in the world working for him. But you know what? I’ve chatted with some of these folks and they swear that Hans does most, if not all, of the writing and demoing himself. How cool is that?

The Hans Zimmer Sound

Epic Percussion

Many of you are certainly already quite familiar with Spitfire Audio’s Virtual Instruments and cinematic libraries. One of their first signature collections was crafted through a collaboration with Hans Zimmer.

And guess what? One of the first instruments in this collaboration was the fantastic Hans Zimmer Percussion.

Now, percussion is a massive part of the Zimmer sound. You’ve probably heard it reverberating throughout Batman Begins, The Flash, and other flicks like Top Gun Maverick and Man of Steel.

Spitfire did an amazing job capturing the unique method that Hans uses to make his drums sound, well, less like a traditional orchestra and more like an all-out hybrid production.

The secret to achieving these colossal percussion hits and sounds is to treat real and especially ethnic drums, like Taikos, Surdos, and Bass drums as if they were samples from an electronic drum machine. What does that mean? Well, it involves adding lots of subharmonics, tube distortion, and a whole lot of transient design.

The result? It doesn’t just sound like a single drum. It sounds like an array of drums pulsating through analog filters. It sounds like a finished album if you just solo the percussion in the session. How cool is that?

Analog Synths Mixed with Epic Brass

One cool technique he uses is blending big, detuned analog brass sounds with real, full-bodied orchestral brass. You’ve probably heard this a lot in films like Inception and Batman.

Here’s how it works: you start with some rich, sawtooth-like sounds from a CS 80 or Jupiter 8 with the filter wide open. Then, you add a lively ensemble of 18 or more players – including multiple French horns, trombones, and trumpets – playing the exact same harmony or melody.

This approach, which he pioneered, has taken the movie trailer world by storm. It’s sometimes referred to as the Brahms or fog horn sound. I bet you’ve heard it in countless superhero or apocalyptic film trailers.

You know, that one brass sound that feels like a massive pad hitting a chord, usually in minor, creating an irresistibly dramatic effect!

Modular Synths

Hans absolutely adores his Moog modular synth, a constant companion in his studio pictures. It comfortably resides in his personal writing room, and trust me, it’s not merely a decorative piece – Hans really gets down to business with it!

What Hans loves to do often, is either subtly layer it beneath his grand brass sounds, or he crafts unique, pulsating rhythms with it. If you’ve listened to Dune or any other Christopher Nolan movies, you’ve probably heard it without even realizing it!

Epic Strings

Hans’ unique string sound is just as distinctive as his signature brass sound. His romantic, John Williams-type melody may not be too unique, but his short staccato string sound? That’s simply mind-blowing!

Just listen to the track “Always A Catch” from the Dark Knight soundtrack, you can easily spot it halfway through. It’s this fun little loop-like short bow sound creating the awesome arpeggio, all skillfully played by the orchestra.

But here’s the secret sauce: he calls back a few of the violin, viola, cello, and bass players to add an extra layer to what they already did. This time, he isolates them, close-mics them, and passes that signal through some distortion units.

So, what you get is a very edgy and cool string sound. It sounds processed, but not too synth-like. It’s truly fascinating!

Hybrid Use of Ethnic Instruments

One of the charming elements that make Hans Zimmer’s scores so captivating is his unique use of voice and ethnic instruments. While it’s common to use vocals and ethnic instruments in film scores, there’s something about Zimmer’s approach that takes it to a whole new level.

Take ‘Gladiator’, for instance – he employed the ethereal vocals of Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance. And throughout his scores for Christopher Nolan’s movies, he’s incorporated a plethora of rare woodwinds from the Middle East and Asia.

He’s even gone so far as to commission bespoke ethnic instruments to create an unconventional sound.

Musicians who work with him often find themselves playing a lot of electric cello, but in a way that mimics a Persian-style string instrument.

Custom Rhythmic Loops

When you dive into a Zimmer score, you’ll often find yourself amazed and wondering, “How on earth did he create that sound?” or “What magical trick did he use to create those loops and bubbling percussion?”

If you’ve ever listened to the soundtracks for The Dark Knight or Inception, you’ve heard those captivating, clock-like rhythms that could be… well, just about anything! And they sound absolutely fantastic.

This magic happens because, before he even starts working on a movie, Hans collaborates with a team of incredibly talented young sound designers and programmers. Together, they conduct a sort of ‘sample session’, experimenting with all sorts of bubbling rhythms; everything from modular synthesizers to drums, and even African-pitched metals played with mallets.

From there, Hans takes these sounds and turns them into virtual instruments. He loves to play around with orchestrations, mixing and matching all of these loops in countless ways.

Coming from a production background, Hans has always had a knack for adding that special touch – a sprinkle of ‘ear candy’ – to his scores.

Combination of Virtual and Analog Synths

One of the many lovely things about Hans Zimmer is his unwavering support for technology, particularly the world of virtual synths. Despite having access to an incredible collection of rare vintage synths, the fact that he’s open about using software synths just shows what a genuine guy he is.

He’s particularly fond of Zebra by the German designer U-he. In fact, he’s such a fan that they even created a version called Dark Zebra after he used so many patches of it on The Dark Knight.

That said, Hans has a soft spot for synths from Waldorf. Nestled below his vast modular synth, you’ll find vintage Waldorf synths like the Microwave 1 and 2, the Microwave XT, and some of the newer racks.

When working on Blade Runner 2049, he also used the iconic Yamaha CS 80, one of the original Blade Runner’s composer Vangelis’ favorite synths. I think he chose these synths not only as a nod to one of his favorite composers but also because their sounds seem to perfectly embody the dystopian landscape.

Alan Meyerson Mixes

Naturally, no Producer’s team is complete without an incredible engineer to record and mix all the music. In the case of Hans Zimmer, he’s got one of the best film-scoring engineers of all time, who works almost exclusively with him. His name? Alan Meyerson.

Even though lots of cool sound design and epic sounds are woven into the production during the tracking and pre-production sessions for a Zimmer score, Alan still brings his amazing taste to the table.

He beautifully blends the orchestral textures and all those incredibly dark and intense sound design elements.

This is so crucial because, when the day is done, the score still needs to hit us right in the feels.

Final Thoughts

Honestly, I could chat all day about the amazing things that make Hans Zimmer an absolute legend. His film scores are not only top-notch, but they’re also incredibly detailed, intriguing, and packed with emotion.

And what’s truly delightful about Hans and his approach is that despite his massive success and all the perks that come with it, he’s never lost his passion and curiosity for music production.

Just listen to him in interviews or his MasterClass. You can tell that even if he wasn’t as successful as he is today, he’d still be doing the same thing.

He never takes the easy way out or compromises, even though he definitely could at this point, and still get hired simply because of his name.

It’s so refreshing to see someone who’s achieved so much, yet still feels like he has so much more to give. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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