Digital models and acoustic instruments have traditionally been studies in contrast. And instrument making has by definition been a craft and an art. But what if making an acoustic instrument was a matter of hitting “print”?

That’s the question asked by MIT Media Lab researcher Amit Zoran. Using the Objet Geometries Connex500 3D printer, one capable of on-the-fly use of multiple materials, he made a flute in 15 hours. The results are surprisingly good for a first attempt. The instrument is playable, but Amit plans additional iteration and improvement. (Be sure to watch through the video for some feedback on the details from flutist Seth Hunter.)

Initially, it’s hard to hear about a 3D printer spitting out a flute from a digital model and not worry a bit about what happens to craft and skill. But that may miss the point. For one, the more access we have to 3D printers, the more we may appreciate the subtleties of human fabrication that these printers can’t reproduce – in case decades of (often inferior) mass production haven’t done that for you already.

Designs like this multi-pipe trumpet, featured in Amit’s video, are imaginary for now. But the 3D printer could make them a reality more quickly, by enabling rapid prototyping and new fabrication techniques.

Moreover, the 3D printer could represent new potential for instrumental research. Acoustic instrument design hasn’t produced a popular instrument, arguably, in over a century. Part of the problem is that it’s too difficult to prototype ideas. Being able to rapidly prototype a lot of variations inexpensively could mean wild, new instruments (see the fanciful multi-pipes trumpet Amit proposes), new designs that can’t be fabricated by hand, as well as new revelations about historical designs. (Imagine being able to produce a dozen variations of a prehistoric flute, for instance, and be able to try them out with a musician.) Those prototypes might, in turn, ultimately be fabricated by a skilled artisan after perfecting the basics of the design.

I’ve sent some questions to Amit to hear more about his research, but let us know if you have questions for him or thoughts about the project. In the meantime, some great coverage from NPR’s Renee Montagne and Engadget’s Sean Hollister, who each beat us to the story:

3D printed concert flute rapidly prototypes sound (video) [Engadget]

3D Printer Produces Working Flute [NPR Morning Edition / Audio]

You can also visit Amit’s own site, which includes designs for everything from sci-fi motorbikes to re-imagined acoustic guitars:

Amit Zoran homepage at MIT

  • http://www.document02.com Document 02

    I believe 3D printing techologies have huge potential for digital music, specifically for DYI controllers, synth cases….

    Some manufacturers are already available on the net (you send a 3D file, they mail back the object).

  • http://alivemachine.com alive machine

    Agreed that this technology will be great for new ideas in hardware controller interfaces. Hardware needs to progress somehow to compete with the benefits that virtual surfaces like the ipad offer.  Maybe 3-D printing will be the key.  But I don't really foresee an explosion of new acoustic instrument designs though.. I think the synthesizer and other electronic music devices pretty much replaced the  development of new types of acoustic instruments.

  • http://www.jhhl.com Henry Lowengard

    I've been thinking of doing a project like this for years: model the "flute" to produce very specific  timbres by shaping the internals of the pipes and combining multiple tubes, and using finger holes to add different lengths of resonating spaces. Something like a (medieval) racket, which has its resonant spaces curled up into a little box.

    Some sections may also have "microtexturing" to damp the high harmonics, and others smooth to enhance them. 

    And.. no latency! Also no batteries, MIDI cables or host processors required.  Also: easy to scale up to make other members of the "family."

    There's a LOT of space for new acoustic instruments.

  • Jeffrey

    You ever wanna see what instrument makers are doing to push sound in new directions. Try checking out the magazine Experimental Musical Instruments. The stuff some of these people are doing will blow your mind.

  • http://nickkent.net nick

    Unless the design intent is meant to be a housing for something non-acoustic, I had thought the general process of acoustic instrument building was essentially form follows function then the functionality and form are are further refined together.

    My first impression here is that these projects start with the form and then I guess hope it will function, leaving that part for later.

  • http://www.jhhl.net Henry Lowengard

    I was going to mention ExMI. They stopped publishing their quarterly in 1999, but keep an online presence and you can get back issues at http://www.windworld.com  The globular trumpets come to mind here. They published an article of mine "Software-o-phones" back in '94 (http:/ /http://www.echonyc.com/~jhhl/software.html ). I HIGHLY recommend them for their professionalism, sense of fun and experimentation. 

  • http://Atlastop.com Martin

    3D printing  acoustic  instruments is very exciting…. Perhaps combined with genetic algorithms to suggest new designs from traditional instrumrnts. This might solve the bottleneck of the fact that it takes a long time to develop musical facility on a new instrument.

  • Dioxide

    This is cool stuff. I suppose you could have a piece of software that uses physical modelling to simulate the sound you would get as you change the design in a 3D design application, and then be able to print out different variations to try out in real life.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/polite/ Polite

    The implications of all this just blows my mind to smithereens.

  • http://www.dcgwest.com Digital Printing Sea

    Great to know about this cool stuff..

    3D printing acoustic instruments is very exciting….

  • sdfd

    Check this out: people are already making digital designs available for these machines.

    http://www.thingiverse.com/

  • Dean Lilja

    SolidWorks Simulator is a tool used to analyze airflow through a 3D Design, generally for heat management. I am not sure how detailed the mesh (or density) would have to be to simulate sound waves, but it might be possible to see the flow and learn how shapes reflect…

  • falcon

    One of these machines or something like it should definitely be packed on board the first maned flight to Mars.

  • falcon

    One Day, they will make a printer that is capable of printing a replica of its self.

  • http://www.ringflute.com/about.html bob

    this flute was also made first via 3d printing. it was functional and was tested before production.

  • http://www.youtube.com/Behringer Brian Crouch

    That trumpet reminds me of something Dr. Seuss would draw. But that's cool!

  • Tal

    There's already an open-source 3d printer that can print itself: http://reprap.org
    it's been around for a few years i believe.

  • http://fallsastar.com Crashproof

    I think any fears about what 3D printers will do to craftsmanship are about on the same level as fears that synthesizers will replace "real" musicians.

    While there's something to it — there are times when a sample library gets used instead of a live orchestra — but people love tradition, quality, and subtlety too much for the old ways to really be lost.  And in a sense, it gives people a greater appreciation for the "real" thing.

  • http://thefutureis3d.com/ Bill

    You can get a 3D printer here at http://thefutureis3d.com/ for under $1500 and try printing out some instrument.