3D printing has opened up the possibility of recreating exact replicas of antique instruments such as Stradivarius violins and the original saxophone mouthpiece invented by Adolphe Sax. It has also allowed the creation of instruments with unique shapes and characteristics tailored to the musician’s needs.
When violinist Sean Riley of University of Texas at Austin needed a six-string violin to perform The Dharma at Big Sur, a piece by renowned composer John Adams, he created one with the help of Daniel Goodwin, a mechanical engineering graduate working at the Foundry in UT Austin, and sculptor Rebecca Milton, a studio art major.
The Challenges Faced
The violin needed an additional low F and low C strings that would allow it to hit the range of notes usually reserved for the cello while still able to reach the soaring high notes required for the piece.
It was unwise to simply tack two more strings onto an existing instrument made for four strings. A six-string violin would also cost several thousand dollars. Making one specific to his exact requirements and at a cheaper cost was the best option Sean had.
Daniel recognised the daunting nature of the task, but he took on the challenge immediately. Rebecca took design inspiration from the music, which was itself inspired by the rugged coastline and mountainous terrain of Big Sur, California.
The final design consisted of a mixture of 3D printing, electronics and moulded porcelain. It works by picking up the strings’ vibrations and converting them into digital signals. The standard hollow shape of violins was not needed. The result? A completely unique instrument and a new musical challenge for Sean.
Sean says: “I’m most proud of my team. They have been amazing and brilliantly patient with all the shenanigans that a project into such uncharted territory entails. It’s hard to describe how amazing it feels to hold the violin in my hands. I can feel that it has been made. I can feel Daniel’s hard work. I can feel Rebecca’s hard work. I felt like I’m not even playing a violin anymore. It’s something different.”
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