Introduction: 3d Printing Musical Instruments

About: I'm a Dutch guy doing things with music and technology. At the moment I'm finishing my MSc in Industrial Design. Not limiting myself to any genre or discipline, I like to work on anything related to music, des…

I think 3d printing will change music. It allows to easily make parts on demand, we can make whole instruments without being an experienced craftsman and even go beyond what is possible with wood or metal!

Three years ago, I did a practical research project on the 3d printing of musical instruments. I printed dozens of objects and was at that time able to gather nearly all published instruments on my half-finished wiki. Now, with 3d printers becoming more and more available, I wanted to see how much the instruments have advanced.

So how do you use 3d printing for musical instruments? My project showed that you can print:

  • an entire instrument
  • functional parts of an instrument
  • decorations for instruments
  • utilities for music
  • completely new unimagined sounds

In this Instructable, I want to show how 3d printing can be used for musical instruments by showing my project, giving a walkthrough on how to do your own experiments with it. I try to go step further by showing what crazy projects others have been doing and how we can even go further with 3d printing for musical instruments!

Step 1: My Research Project

Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to do a free assignment. With DIY 3d printers becoming available in my school, I decided to figure out how 3d printers could change musical instruments. I did a long research into 3d printing techniques, which I tried to combine with musical instrument manufacturing techniques.

While replication of existing instruments did seem like an option, I was more interested in making completely new instruments. While I had a lot of issues with printing in the first place, I made dozens of experiments. One of those was very interesting, let's have a look at this one!

In the picture above, you see my take at 3D printing 'wood blocks'. They each have a different infill pattern. I discovered that because of these distinct shapes they all sounded very different! Using this principle, it is possible to print a wood block with whichever tone you want! Sadly, the time I had available was over so I couldn't continue but you can check the wiki, the report, the guide and the publication I made about this.

On the next step, you can find out how to make your own wood block experiments!

Step 2: Make Your Own Wood Blocks

The process for making one of these 3d printed 'woodblocks' is like this:

  1. Start with the STL of the woodblock above, or make one yourself.
  2. Drag it into Slic3r
  3. Go to 'Print Settings' and play with the different fill patterns and fill densities (see in the pictures)
  4. Put all the other settings as you're used to and print!
  5. Take the print out of the printer and check how it sound
  6. Go back to step 3, choose some different settings and repeat the cycle!

After a few tries, you should be able get some good results. The infill settings I used in my most successful print, which is the one in the video below, were: rectlinear 10%.

Except for this one, the prints I did for my project might not have created crazy good instruments, but other people did. With the enormous increase in print quality in the last few years, I've seen a lot of awesome things come by. Let's push this instructable a little bit further and take a look at what others have made in the next steps!

Step 3: Completely 3d Printed Instruments

How cool is it, when you think "let's try playing violin", that you can just download a file and print the instrument at home?

Well, a lot of people have been trying and have been quite successful. Some projects produced fully functional flutes and violinswith high budget printers. However Lulzbot Reddit contest showed that even DIY printers are suitable for making instruments.

Making ukuleles seem to be getting trendy and fruitful. They are very playable, people are trying new shapes and even an open-source ukulele has been published. Yet my favourite is this orange uke from Solstie on Instructables: (Check the sound at 2:00)

While a lot more complex than ukuleles, wind instruments are also very suitable for 3d printing. The reason for this, is that in theory, the material of a wind instrument has little influence on the sound it will make, because you're vibrating a column of air, and this is the same whichever material surrounds it. Next to flutes and trombones, I love this amazing saxophone by Olaf Diegel:

As awesome as they are, in those examples it's not the 3d printed parts that are vibrating; the ukulele has strings and the saxophone has a reed. I also found instruments where the 3d printed parts vibrate themselves. While not having the most beautiful sound, this slit drum piano and the music box below definitely make it work!

Step 4: 3d Printed Parts

You can print a whole instrument in one go, but why make a supplement to traditional instruments? This way you can quickly make parts at home which are usually done by expert artisans. You will be able to easily make variations of your instruments so they fit your needs better! For instance these bagpipes, trumpet mouthpieces, or these replicas of classic saxophone mouthpieces:

Step 5: 3d Printed Decorative Parts Parts

Another possibility of the 3d printer is to make shapes impossible some years ago. Intricate shapes, generative patterns and moving parts are some of the possibilities.

As the materials of electronic instruments barely have an influence on the sound the instrument makes, they are perfect to be decorated with this 3d printed art. Check out these performances to see how crazy these instruments can look:

Step 6: Other Music Related Prints

But yeah, 3d printing is also good for a lot of other music related things. See the famous 3d printed record, some printable synth parts and these printed visualisations. Artists have also made complete 3d printed sonic environments and robot-musicians.

Another really cool application, is when 3d printing is used to make parts which you would never think could be printed, like these 3d printed speakers (ok, it still sounds a bit weak):

You know when things really become insane? When artists make 3d printed custom enclosures for electronics. For instance the work of Onyx Ashanti, who basically made a musical exoskeleton for himself:

Step 7: A Taste of Future Possibilities

Not saying all these previous attempts aren't amazing, but I feel like we're barely touching the true potential 3d printing is giving us. I wish to hear musical instruments sounding like nothing we've heard before. And after this research I thought of a few ways of going there.

The woodblocks I made in my own experiments, show how having control of the inner structure of an instrument can lead a lot of control on the final sound. The reason why wood works so good for musical instruments is that it has a hollow internal structure will a lot of tiny resonant spaces (see in the picture above). It has been said that the reason Stradivarius violins sound so good is because the wood used is exceptionally uniform. So imagine what could happen when we have control of this structure. Maybe we can make things that sound even better than what mother nature gave us!

Another direction is in using 3d printing for weird shapes. Amit Zoran made some crazy concepts like the trumpet you see above and at TU delft they made saxophone mouthpieces with internal aerodynamic structures. These concepts use 3d printing's advantage to make parts within parts (within parts, within parts...). Maybe we'll be able to make all sorts of modular instruments this way, where you take part trumpet, part saxophone, and part oboe, and turn it into a crazy custom obumpophone. Maybe we can even go further, and make use of internal moving parts like in this movie:

The last possibility I see is that we will be able to calculate how the instrument sounds before it is even made. As you can see in the video below; computer technology could design the mythological 'major third' bell that bell-makers spend centuries on trying.

Back to 3d prinitng, some flutes were made with calculated properties and sound bowls with the characteristics of someone's blood pressure. Imagine that in the future, you can basically use a synthesizer on your computer to find some crazy sounds you like, and then you press print to get an instrument which will actually make that sound!

Like this article explains, 3d printed shapes seem to follow the history of synthesized sound. I think that 3d printing will not stop at reproducing parts and forms we already know, it will open a whole new world of unimaginable shapes and mechanisms, just like we could never have imagined synthesizer sounds 100 years ago.

What do you think is the future?

Thanks Marie Caye for the help on this project!
3D Printing Contest

Runner Up in the
3D Printing Contest