3D Printing Microtonal Instruments


Researchers at Australia’s University Of Wollongong are exploring using 3D modeling and 3D printing to make it possible to ‘print’ microtonal instruments on demand.

Here’s a video overview:

The project, part of UOW’s Global Challenges program, combines the field of microtonal music, which uses different tuning ratios than those traditionally used in most Western music and offers a greater variety of pitch, intervals and harmonies, with the emerging technology of 3D printing to create wind instruments that are not feasible manufacture using traditional technology.

The project is an example of one of the industry-wide trends for music making that we outlined in 10 Predictions For Electronic Music Making In The Next Decade:

4) You’ll design your own instruments – in the last few years, synth “hot rodding” has grown in popularity. You can get Roland TB-303’s with mods, keyboards with customized paint jobs and custom LEDs and end panels in the exotic woods of your choice. This is going to go mainstream in the next decade, with gear manufacturers offering you the option to order your gear completely customized.

Advances in manufacturing technology are going to push this further though. In a decade, you’ll design your own instruments, you’ll test them out virtually and they will be “printed” to your specifications.

We’re not to the point where electronic instruments are being 3D printed on-demand, but there are plenty other examples of this trend in action, including printed paper MIDI controllers, 3D printed guitars and on-demand 3D printed synthesizer parts.

The lead researcher on the UOW project, microtonal musician and music lecturer at UOW, Dr Terumi Narushima, says the project could lead to the music industry offering customized music instruments, on demand.

“There are huge possibilities for the future of this project,” notes Professor Geoffrey Spink. “We can see many applications moving forward with areas like custom-made instruments for people with physical restrictions, student models for use by children where the instrument grows as they do, customized instrument design where alternative designs can be printed and tested prior to production, as well as print on demand options,” he said.

The research team involved in this project also includes Associate Professor Christian Ritz, Dr Stephen Beirne, Matthew Dabin and Kraig Grady.

Dr Narushima will be performing with the 3D printed flutes at the Big Ideas Festival at UOW in August.


15 thoughts on “3D Printing Microtonal Instruments

  1. Great — you can print a microtonal instrument now, but most synthesizers (soft and hard) still don’t support microtuning even though doing so is rather trivial compared to this particular solution. It’s great to see this sort of activity, but it reinforces the stereotype that microtuning is some weird, way out there endeavor that normal people would never have an interest in. Someday, I hope, the hegemony of equal temperament will be broken and a bit of diversity will be let in. We spend so much time trying to get the perfect sounds out of our synths, yet so much of the quality of sound is also influenced by tuning systems. Such a waste of a creative potential.

      1. Yes, Silent Way is indeed an option, but the required hardware costs more than some of the entry-level analog synths. And I still stand by the assertion that *most* new synths today do not natively support microtuning, thus making those of us interesting in alternate tunings the equivalent of second-class citizens. Surely someone else out there thinks it’s kind of odd that you can’t even play music in the native tuning systems of the countries (e.g., Japan, China) that produce most synths.

    1. While it is too rare, you can do microtonal in Reason, if you buy a $9 Rack Extension by Ochen K. called Microtune. I know it’s not much, and locked in a proprietary system, but it’s better than nothing.

    2. I fully agree! I don’t understand why some kind of alternate tuning, look-up-table isn’t just a universal standard in electronic instruments. Does the Church/Illuminati/David Cameron consider it heresy or something?

      Down with 12TET! Death to the daemoness Allegra Geller!

      1. I think it comes down to market demand coupled with ignorance. Not enough people are asking for microtuning in hard/softsynths and the developers of these instruments seem equally unaware. I can’t count the number of times I’ve emailed a company who makes a synth and asks if it supports microtuning and the typical response is somewhere between “huh, what’s that” to “yes, you can [globally] tune our synths.” I usually follow up with a qualifier of “alternate tuning systems like Arabic or Balinese music” and then some people get slightly clued in. Keep in mind that with smaller companies, I’m actually emailing with the developer directly, and not a marketing person.

        The reality is that most people on this planet in the Western world–including musicians!–have no clue whatsoever that there is something other than equal temperament and that there are actually other ways to tune the notes in an octave in number and pitch. (Granted, classical musicians and blues musicians are the exception because they use different tuning systems.)

  2. I am curious about the toxicity of the materials that the 3d printer uses….since you are putting it in your mouth

    1. The university were thinking of using totality harmless materials, but at the last minute they decided high-toxicity was the way to go. Sadly, half the people in that video now half blue tongues, with only micro-seconds to live.

  3. This is super awesome news! Congrats to the team that put this together.

    I also giggle along with commenter JC above that it will soon be easier to produce custom hardware acoustic instruments in a given tuning than it is to tune your super-malleable-in-theory electronic Volcas and Tetras. That just shows how astonishingly backwards the synth industry has regressed, especially given that the vast majority of the word’s musicians don’t want to use 12 equal.

  4. as mentioned above, any synth with control voltage input can be used microtonally, and as this is becoming common in analog synths again…

    going microtonal in modular world is very easy. many many options.

  5. Yeah yeah synths can be microtuned both hardware and software. BUT. They are making a flute! There’s a big difference, between a flute and a synthesiser, I suppose. Microtonal flutes and printing acoustic instruments is the future for sure, lets just wait for them to explore the possibilities right now 🙂 I’m quite sure the material is not toxic. On the other hand, instruments where microtuned without the printers before, but using a printer allows to explore other tunnings and tempres without the horrendous work of creating a real flute. I love the Idea ;D

  6. It is a very fascinating area and field to be involved in. I guess it is an extreme digital-to-analogue conversion.

    I’ve always liked the idea of making virtual musical instruments in a 3D package. I mean in terms of physical sound dynamics in a 3D engine. So you could model a crazy horn and play a tune on it in the engine, physically modeling sound rather than sample playback. I don’t know if we have software that does this, often done a search, but zero.

    I do want to do some crazy tunes in virtual playground with physical dynamic synthesis of audio and visuals. So changing the material of a 3D drum skin would make a different sound, as would stretching the drum skin on dynamic strikes. He does touch on this in the video regarding mathematical modeling of a flute, but only in an abstracted sense. Must be possible, so one day maybe you could design and play a virtual flute and then print it, fine-tuning those micro-tonal’s as you would in a VST before the print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *