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3Dvarius: How do 3-D printed violins stack up to traditional instruments?

3Dvarius experiments with sound, design, and the limits of 3-D printers with its new violins.

A 3-D printed violin, named 3Dvarius, aims to recreate the sound of some of the world’s most acclaimed violins – and raises the question of how close are we to replacing humans in the world of instrument design and building.

Modern 3-D printers have created a huge range of items, from entire buildings to nano tech parts. But can a 3-D printer really recreate the subtleties and substance of a stringed instrument prized for centuries?

The 3Dvarius design team, which includes violinist Laurent Bernacac, set out to meet the demands of serious players. However, the primary parts of the instrument that make the sound – the strings, the bridge, etc – were not printed. Plus, it’s an electric, not an acoustic instrument. So, most of what you hear has little to do with the 3-D printed design.

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Electric violins have been around for a while. Mark Woods, co-creator of the progressive rock band Trans Siberian Orchestra and founder of Woods Violins, has been in the business of making high-end electric violins and other stringed instruments for 25 years. Because the instruments are electric, they can come in body designs as diverse as the people playing them. There is a great amount of creative and technical thinking that goes into any electric instrument. How it looks and how it sounds, though, are not necessarily related.

Musicians certainly have their own feelings about this point. Ian Ethan Case is no stranger to unique instruments. As one of the world’s few double-neck-guitar players, he’s worked with many instruments (made mostly by humans), but some with predominantly machined parts. In an e-mail interview, Mr. Case explained that he’s never had the best sound come from a mostly machine-made instrument.

“I've really come to appreciate the dynamic range and tonal complexity of acoustic instruments,” says Case. “If you look at a waveform of an acoustic guitar versus [that of] an electric, there's just so much more sonic information there.” 

That said, there’s a lot to praise about electric instruments, says Case. The relatively simplistic sonics of electric “have a more focused tone in a smaller frequency range that a listener's ear can hone in on as a lead voice.” The sound a musician is going for will ultimately determine his or her choice of instruments.

So, though 3Dvarius, in all its prototype glory, pushes boundaries for the creation of electric violins, the bigger revelations in 3-D instruments may still come through discovering if 3-D printing will ever truly capture the sound and majesty of traditional, person-made instruments. A TEDxAmsterdam video from 2013 shows technician Sander Smit’s 3-D printed acoustic violin up against the sound of human-made acoustic. Though the 3-D printed instrument is an acceptable violin, the very first note played on the traditionally made violin shows that, at least when it comes to instruments, humans still beat the machines.

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