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3D-printed instruments showcased at Ottawa Symphony Orchestra performance

“The main differences are the kind of sound that it produces. It’s a kind of more mellow tone,” said Mary-Elizabeth Brown, one of the violin players. “It sounds a little bit gritty under the ear, so it’s not quite as refined a sound. It sounds much louder next to your ear and it doesn’t project as far.”
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Some of the instruments at an Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (OSO) performance Sunday weren’t built by hand from wood or brass – they were printed by a computer and made of plastic.

The OSO played a show – dubbed the “3D StringTheory Project” – in the atrium of Ottawa City Hall with a full ensemble of instruments, including eight violin-type instruments created by a 3D printer. The OSO first came up with the plan to play with 3D instruments in 2016 after receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

Laurent Lacombe, co-founder of 3D printing company Creadditive, said the OSO approached him to design the instruments for the performance.

Lacombe first took a real violin and scanned it in a CT scanner, then took the data from the scan and created a 3D model. The initial model that Lacombe printed had problems, though.

“It needed to be modified extensively because it [was] really heavier than wood, maybe twice as much,” he said. “I had to first smooth the surfaces of the violin, and also reduce the weight considerably.”

The first prototype was a one-piece violin, according to Lacombe, but the final violin was three pieces. It took about eight months the get to the final design.

Mary-Elizabeth Brown was one of the eight musicians in Sunday’s ensemble who actually played with the 3D-printed instruments. She was the lead musician on the project and helped test the prototypes over the 8-month design period.

“We went through a total of seven different iterations of that prototype to arrive at what we have today,” Brown said. “What we’re playing on now – this iteration – is much closer to, let’s say, a regular violin.”

Brown said the dimensions and feel of the 3D-printed violins are pretty much the same as a real violin. But, each of the instruments are white due to the material used to print them.

“The main differences are the kind of sound that it produces. It’s a kind of more mellow tone,” Brown said. “It sounds a little bit gritty under the ear, so it’s not quite as refined a sound. It sounds much louder next to your ear and it doesn’t project as far.”

The sound of an older, wooden violin doesn’t actually sound very loud up close, Brown said.

“But they carry a long way. They project really well – it has to do with the density of the wood, and we haven’t quite achieved the same result with these 3D instruments. They don’t project as far,” she said.

As for the goal of the project, the OSO wanted to merge new and old technology – classical instruments with cutting-edge innovation, according to Brown.

“We play music by old, dead guys a lot of the time, and we do it on old instruments. My regular violin was built in Italy in 1766. It’s old. We’re like a living museum and this 3D-printing technology is at the cutting edge of what is new,” Brown said.

And while the OSO has proven that a 3D printer can recreate a classical instrument quite faithfully, it may not be feasible to use these sorts of instruments in the near future, at least for professional use. OSO’s original plan was create a 3D-printed instrument from every family of the orchestra – a string, wood, brass and percussion instrument, according to Brown. But she said it was too costly in terms of time and research and development to create so many unique instruments.

Lacombe, however, said there may be a future for these instruments for entry-level musicians.

“I think that we could make cheaper versions of these violins, so they could be more accessible to people that would like to start playing violin,” he said. “I know that a wooden violin is quite expensive, so maybe there could be an alternative there.”

The full performance is available to watch here: https://www.facebook.com/ottawasymphony/videos/512253805959267/



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