3D printing lets antique musical instruments be played again

old saxophone
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 [phil h]

We love hearing about people finding solutions to problems through 3D printing that otherwise couldn't be solved. Many of those stories are medical advances, but sometimes the technology just makes a job easier or, in this case, actually brings history back to life.

Dr. Robert Howe, a reproductive endocrinologist and a doctoral student at University of Connecticut in musical theory and history, has come up with a way to marry medical scanning technology with 3D printing in order to repair antique musical instruments so that they can be played again.

Howe learned how to use CT-scanning in his practice to make 3D scans of body parts and he soon began thinking about how it could also be used on musical instruments. Together with his musical theory professor and an engineering professor who specializes in 3D imaging, Howe began making detailed 3D scans of centuries-old instruments to not just study them from every angle, but also to then 3D print copies of parts that would allow them be played.

The technology has let them examine 18th-century horns from the inside-out, showing them to be much more complicated than was thought and a new technique that allows them to scan metal and wood at the same time has allowed them to make exact 3-D images of the mouthpiece used on one of the first saxophones made by Adolphe Sax in the 19th century.

Only three of these mouthpieces exist in the world and in order to duplicate it, the original mouthpieces would have to be measured by metal calipers which could damage the wood. After that, the part would have to be handmade through a long and costly process. 3D scanning and printing on the other hand is allowing them to make duplicates with exact dimensions without harming the instrument piece and for only about $18 a part.

"If they can accurately reproduce the dimensions in the mouthpiece that Adolphe Sax himself invented, it would be of fundamental, seminal importance in understanding our instrument," Paul Cohen, a saxophonist who teaches at New York University said.

The team has made plastic replicas of the mouthpieces of several of Sax's horns and soon modern ears will be able to hear how these instruments were really meant to sound.

The team is also working on printing parts to fix broken instruments. They've already used a replacement part to play a 1740 recorder.

"The universal availability of 3-D printing, which is happening as we wait, will make all this work very relevant and not just for musical instruments," Howe said. "The ability to measure and replicate items that are difficult to measure and replicate is going to explode."

3D printing lets antique musical instruments be played again
A doctor is using medical scanning technology and 3D printing to breathe life back into very old instruments.

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