3D PRINTING: How 3-D Printing Will Change The Way We Play Music

Sometimes it feels like we have people telling us that 3-D printing is going to change just about everything: FashionHealth Care.ArchitectureViolenceYour dinner. Now we can add one more thing to the list: Music.

A group of students at Lund University in Sweden recently becamethe first band to play 3-D printed musical instruments together in a live setting. The headline-grabbing stunt—together with other music-oriented 3-D printing projects—alludes to the future of how musical instruments are designed and played.

“I initially started the project just to see if it could be done, and started to blog about it on my website,” says Olaf Diegel, the Lund professor who spearheaded the instrument-printing project. “But a lot of musicians contacted me and said they liked the idea so I turned it into a little spin-off business.”

Diegel used a type of 3-D printing called selective laser sintering(SLS) to build custom-designed guitar bodies, drum shells, and the exterior to a keyboard. Like traditional 3-D printing, SLS distributes one thin layer of powder after another, but in this case the process uses a laser to melt the powder in the appropriate places. After an 11-hour print job, he takes off-the-shelf hardware—the neck, knobs, strings, and electronics—and pieces everything together much like he would if the body had just come off of an assembly line.

Diegel is by no means the first to dabble in the art of printing instruments. F-F-Fiddle is an open source, printable electronic violin designed by OpenFab PDX founder David Perry. A lifelong musician, Perry was inspired to build a violin of his own after visiting a violin luthier’s workshop a few years ago. He assumed the dream would have to wait until he retired and had the time to learn the complex craftsmanship of forging a violin out of wood. Then he bought a 3-D printer.

“I was working on a computer-modeling tutorial for a guitar,” says Perry. “As the guitar really started to take shape I said, ‘Shoot, if I can model a guitar on the computer, I could model a violin.’”

The end result is a fully functional, playable electric violin. Perry has made the blueprints and digital files available as a kit that he sells online, effectively open-sourcing the construction of a new breed of musical instrument.

As is typically the case with 3-D printing, one major advantage here is cost savings. Like Perry’s F-F-Fiddle, other examples like this giant, bass-range recorder can be printed and constructed more affordably than the traditional route allows. For $30, you can print a perfectly functional version of an instrument that normally goes for a few thousand dollars.

But perhaps most interesting are the new, virtually unlimited design possibilities that the process opens up. “3-D printing allows some unique features on the instrument, like curvy internal wire routing and easy configuration of the internal resonance structure,” Perry says.

Then there’s aesthetics. Just as drummers have long emblazoned personalized logos onto their bass drums, now the entire band can customize the look and feel of their entire instruments.

The way a trumpet’s pipes are banded, you cannot have multiple pipes one inside the other. But the 3-D printing machine won’t care and can make it easily.

“Musicians are highly individual, so 3-D printing is perfect for that as it’s ideally suited to customization,” says Diegel. “It doesn’t cost any more to make every guitar different than to make every guitar the same, so you might as well make every one different to suit the musician.”

While the 3-D printing for a complex instrument is currently limited to the body, Diegel foresees a future in which more parts of the guitar—from the knobs to the neck—can be custom-designed and printed.

“It would be pretty easy, for example, to scan your head and make guitar knobs in the shape of your own head,” says Diegel. That may sound incredibly weird, but would you put it past any member of KISS?

Just as in every other field touched by 3-D printing, as the technology advances, the possibilities expand. Before long, musicians will be designing and printing their own new instruments from scratch.

At MIT, researcher Amit Zoran has been exploring the impact of 3-D printing on the creation of musical instruments for years. He’s already successfully printed a functional flute and created an as-yet-unprinted prototype design of an experimental, multi-horned trumpet. The finished product may or may not produce a sound anyone wants to hear, but the concept demonstrates how 3-D printing can one-up the old-school way of doing things.

“The way a trumpet’s pipes are banded, you cannot have multiple pipes one inside the other,” explains Zoran. “But the 3-D printing machine won’t care and can make it easily.”

The future potential is hard to miss. Since 3-D printing allows for the creation of intricate designs that wouldn’t be possible with wood, brass, or even traditional plastics, it stands to reason that the process can give birth to new acoustic possibilities. Tomorrow’s new instruments will not only look different, but may be capable of producing new timbres and tones—with or without the aid of electronic sound synthesis.

To be sure, the geeks and makers occupying the intersection of music and technology are already thinking about 3-D printing. At Music Hack Day in Boston last year, developer Christopher Barthle combined music and 3-D printing by taking a visual breakdown of the audio from a Katy Perry song, fine-tuning some parameters, and printing out a physical representation of the track.

Barthle’s hack wasn’t itself a playable instrument, but it’s only a matter of time before additive manufacturing finds its way into the creation of new instruments, which are already being conceived and built at Music Hack Day and similar events all around the world.



John Paul Titlow is the Associate Editor for Fast Company’s FastCoLabs, where he covers the intersection of music and technology, the geeky underbelly of mass media’s data-infused future and the people building it all.