Digital Fabrication in the Designing and Manufacturing of Traditional Musical Instruments

Before we dwell into the main topic, let us first clarify what is digital fabrication. In recent years students and adults would be familiar to this term as a new medium of creating and constructing from small everyday objects to buildings where we stay in. Yet did we ever ask and ponder what is “Digital Fabrication”, and how did it suddenly become a frequently reoccurring term that you hear in everyday life?

With the rapid improvement and advancement of technology in our current age, digital fabrication is the designing and manufacturing process where digital data guide the creation of various forms. CAD (computer-aided designs) is usually used to create this digital data, which is then sent to a CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software that the machine then reads and follows the instructions given. Dfab (Digital Fabrication) can be split into two different types of manufacturing process, additive, and subtractive. An additive process would be 3D printing, while a subtractive process would be machining. In this passage, however, we will only be specifically talking about the Dfab process of 3D printing.

With the introduction of 3D printing technology, the long process of designing and fabricating musical instruments has now been rapidly reduced. With 3D printing, we are now able to create fast modification and design alteration in the digital file format using accurate measurements to test the product and the difference in resonance caused by the change in design. Even with our current advancement of technology, we are still unable to create the same sound that traditionally made instrument’s has as compared to 3D printed ones. Yet, due to the speed and rapid prototyping capabilities, it has allowed modern day fabricators and researchers to experiment and create multiple different designs, while introducing unique, unorthodox ideas into the world of instruments. This has opened up a whole new world of instruments, as the construction and the materials used to create these new instruments are vastly different from its traditional counterparts, creating a unique and interesting sound.

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra

3D Printed violins and viola -Courtesy of Ottawa Symphony Orchestra

At the end of 2018, the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra presented to the world an amazing and interesting performance using both 3D printed and traditionally made violins and violas. This project from the start of prototyping and fabrication to the final product of all 8 3D printed instruments took a total of 18 months from start to the performance. This consisted of multiple iterations before resulting in the end results of the violins and violas that you see above.

Within the 18 months of prototyping, the performers saw an amazing amount of improvements in the design, weight and sound quality of the instruments. “Every prototype we have greeted has gotten easier to play. The first ones were really heavy to hold and they didn’t project well. This one here doesn’t project as well as a wooden instrument, but it is much easier to play now. It sounds very loud close to the ear but not so loud farther away.” – Mary-Elizabeth Brown.

The purpose of this project was not to reproduce the sound of a traditional violin or viola using the 3D printed method, it was to see what is able to be produced using digital fabrication while combining with a traditional musical instrument. As the resonance and the sound quality produced by 3D printed instrument is still unable to be comparable to traditional handcrafted instruments, it would be unable to replace it. However, 3D printed instruments has the chance to be extremely valuable to entry level musicians who can’t yet afford a traditional instrument. As the production cost and the time spent on creating a single 3D printed instrument is far lesser then a traditionally made one, while having an increase in durability due to the materials used in its creation.


MULTI a sonic installation in collaboration with Luthier Scoot F.

MONAD Studio is an architecture studio that was founded in 2004 in New York by Veronica Zalcberg and Eric Goldemberg. It specializes in spatial perception related to rhythmic affect, on a variety of explorations ranging form urban plans to buildings, from landscape to art installations, product design and music instruments. Through the years MONAD Studio collaborated with various people and companies to create unique and one of a kind 3D printed instruments.

One of this instruments is the Piezoelectric Titanium Violin. The hollow-body, titanium printed instrument was designed and fabricated in collaboration with CalRAM Inc.. This new iteration of the titanium violin is entirely hollow inside, allowing the sound to travel and reverberate through the internal tubes and echo chamber. This combination of unconventional material usage and tonal range resulted in MONAD Studio to construct one of their first instruments that conforms and relates to the shape of the human body, essentially creating a brand new instrument inspired by the violin.

Unlike how the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra created and designed their instrument, MONAD Studios took the route of creating an entirely new instrument after take the violin as the inspiration. This also reflects the possibilities of 3D printing technology in the designing and fabrication of musical instruments. Another on of their projects was to create a Bass Guitar and has a fixture in the wall that it fits into. This further shows how MONAD Studio uses technology to integrate their designs into their architectural practice.

In conclusion, I feel that with the improvement of digital fabrication (Dfab), it is able to expand the possibilities of the customization of instruments that perfectly fits a musicians hands. However, as of the technology now, traditionally hand crafted instruments still sound incredibly different, and brighter. As such, even with the introduction of Dfab, 3D printed instrument would be unable to compete in the quality of sound that it can produce when compared to the traditionally made ones. This does not mean that 3D printed instruments are instruments are not useful, due to its versatility you could print a cheap yet durable instrument for entry level students to familiarize themselves with the instruments first before purchasing a traditionally hand crafted instrument that would normally cost more.

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