3-D Printers Bring Historic Instruments Back To The Future
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A couple of Ph.D.s walk into a room with an old saxophone and a 3-D printer. This is not a joke. They did that at the University of Connecticut, and they figured out how to reproduce key parts of vintage musical instruments, literally breathing life back into them. Tom Verde has the story.
TOM VERDE, BYLINE: In a recital hall at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, a group of musicians got together to play Jean-Baptiste Singelee's 1857 quartet for saxophone on some very old, very special instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT HOWE: This is an Adolphe Sax saxophone from the mid-1860s.
VERDE: And that's Robert Howe, who collects antique wind instruments. He's also a reproductive endocrinologist and M.D. who's now a Ph.D. candidate in music history and theory at UConn. About five years ago it occurred to him that CAT scans, X-rays and similar medical technology might also be used to examine the anatomies of antique oboes, flutes and saxophones, like his.
HOWE: When I received this, it had a mouthpiece with it and the mouthpiece is early 20th century manufacture and it plays in a particular way.
VERDE: But not at all the way Adolphe Sax, the man who invented and literally put the sax in the saxophone, heard the horn. The problem is there are only about 10 or so surviving original mouthpieces crafted by Sax. Howe wondered if the CAT scan and X-ray data of these originals might help replicate new ones. Then he met Sina Shahbazmohamadi, director of imaging at UConn's Center for Clean Energy Engineering, now an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Manhattan College in the Bronx.
SINA SHAHBAZMOHAMADI: I thought, why not just transfer the data from the X-ray to the 3-D printer and copy those? There are several advantages to this. Mainly, there would be no error during this transferring.
VERDE: The process also allowed Shahbazmohamadi to digitally remove dings, dents and cracks that existed in the originals. In addition, working from Howe's tenor mouthpiece, Shahbazmohamadi was able to manipulate the data to create copies of alto, baritone and soprano mouthpieces, which no longer existed.
SHAHBAZMOHAMADI: So the antique saxophones exist, but their mouthpieces do not. And that was huge because it allowed people to play saxophones that were not usable before.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VERDE: So essentially for the same reasons you can't just stick a Volkswagen carburetor in a Maserati or any old grin on the "Mona Lisa," you can't stick a modern mouthpiece on an antique saxophone and expect it to sound like it did a century ago.
HOWE: So this is the "Yukon Fight Song" played on an Adolphe Sax baritone sax 2201 from the 1860s, first using a modern baritone saxophone mouthpiece.
HOWE: Now I'm going to do it with the mouthpiece that Dr. Shahbazmohamadi manufactured for this instrument taken from the measurements of the original tenor saxophone mouthpiece.
VERDE: You don't have to be a musicologist to detect the difference, but we asked one anyway - Howe's adviser at UConn, Professor Richard Bass.
RICHARD BASS: It's a sweeter sound. It's more mellow. It's something that would've blended better with the other wind instruments that were in use at the time Sax was making these instruments.
VERDE: And that is an objective worth pursuing, according to Darcy Kuronen, Pappalardo Curator of musical instruments at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
DARCY KURONEN: There are a limited number of historical instruments out there and they're not going to last forever. If they're getting played all the time, they suffered damage and change. So you want to be able to make replicas and you want to make them as accurately or as authentically as you can. Now, there's going to be limitations.
VERDE: Among the most problematic in Kuronen's view is the use of synthetic as opposed to natural porous materials like wood, which absorb moisture and oils and play a subtle yet significant role over time in the complex interaction between human breath and the human ear. For instance, let's say you've got a wooden flute from the 1800s.
KURONEN: And you want to replicate that in a polymer, I think it's going to respond somewhat differently. Some would argue that as long as you get the shape of the bore and the finger holes accurately reproduced, it's going to respond like that flute ought to. But I think every musician would respond that, well, that flutes sound different whether it's made out of boxwood or ebony or ivory or polymer.
VERDE: Sina Shahbazmohamadi says he hopes to put such debates to rest by performing rigorous acoustical analyses of 3-D printed mouthpieces. Meanwhile, the team has applied for a patent and hopes to one day print-out complete antique musical instrument replicas with the push of a button. For NPR News, I'm Tom Verde. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.