Bells and Whistles

3-D printing boosts experiments in music and sounds.

November/December 2014

Reading time min

Bells and Whistles

Images: Valkyrie Savage

CREATIVE FRUSTRATION, 2014: You have a particular tune composed in your head, but your flute is still in the printer. Oh, well, at least you're not waiting on a guitar. And on the upside, you're in the vanguard of people experimenting with musical innovation through 3-D printing.

For the past two summers, that has been the ambience of a workshop offered by Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. The one-week class, 3-D Printing for Acoustics, was created at the behest of professor and CCRMA director Chris Chafe, DMA '83. A full course is possible somewhere down the road because, as Chafe notes, "we're not only taking the pulse of such innovations by trying them out in the summer, but compiling materials which can be expanded on."

Implemented as a joint effort of CCRMA and Stanford's Product Realization Lab, the workshop blends computer science and mechanical engineering with research on the nuances of sound. In simplified terms, an instrument is designed with help of software, and a prototype is made with a 3-D printing machine, using technology known as additive manufacturing. An object is formed layer by layer as the printer uses a moldable plastic to replicate the dimensions and details of what was modeled on a computer.

Projects can range from the technically subtle to the purely fanciful. And co-instructor John Granzow, MA '12, PhD '16, also lends his support to things that are just "interesting visual objects." At its best, the workshop is a mash-up, blending acoustics, geometry, ergonomics, materials science and ingenuity. Sorry, no guitars, but perhaps a nifty slide whistle? Ideally, the process should accommodate time to print, tinker, tweak and print again.

To appreciate the more intriguing possibilities of 3-D printing, consider its advantages during prototyping. The shape of some instruments can be modified with relative ease, allowing the maker to examine how a small change to a certain angle or diameter affects resonance and tone. While it's possible to do this with traditionally crafted instruments, the workshop instructors say making modifications requires more laborious methods like carving and milling. As noted by another of the instructors, Dan Somen, the relative immediacy of printing and reprinting promotes thinking and rethinking. "Get it done now," intones Somen, MS '15, "and make it better later."

There's also the more impulsive motivation, as exemplified by one of this past summer's workshop participants, Valkyrie Savage. A UC-Berkeley PhD student in the electrical engineering and computer science program, Savage says she simply "wanted to make something." Her chosen object? A flute for her bicycle, tailored to the curve of her handlebars. The wind would bring sound to the flute while she rode; she would try to use the finger holes to coax a tune from it as well.

At workshop's end, Savage had produced one of those interesting visual items the instructors admire. But its utility was unclear. A month later, the verdict was in. Savage says the flute has to be angled exactly right, with a precision involving "tenths of a degree." Then she can elicit "a couple of different notes."

The thing is, she refuses to be done with it. She's channeling Somen's rinse-and-repeat mantra as well as her career training in debugging whatever doesn't click on first try. Eventually she'll be back at a printer. "I can work with what I have to make it better," she says.

In comparison with other projects, Savage's creation also underscores the range of ideas within the workshop. Hers was not the only flute. Another was a replica of a famously ancient one made of bone—now available in 21st-century plastics.

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