Music to Our Ears: Winner of Canada’s 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge Announced

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We often hear stories of people who need 3D printed prosthetics and assistive devices to play their chosen instrument, be it the cello, the drums, or the piano. And as materials have progressed over time, more has become possible in new ways when it comes to playing music for any musician. That’s why the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (OSO) and Canada Makes teamed up to create the National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge.

OSO’s 3D StringTheory project is funded through a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, and aims to incorporate emerging technologies, like 3D printing, in the way we make music.

“At the symphony, we play beautiful repertoire, and the classics for a very large orchestra, like the Strauss and Mahler symphonies. We have a special mission, but I want to extend that mission to also think outside of the box, to projects that we could do that bring us to other places in town,” said Alain Trudel, OSO’s musical director and conductor.

One part of the project is to hold public competitions involving design and instrument making; the National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge was the first. The competition challenged participants to design an ergonomically optimized musical instrument that’s 3D printed but also cost-effective.

Designers were asked to think about how they could help solve music performance-related injuries by addressing the root cause of instrument design. A panel of eight adjudicators, made up equally of people from the music performance, 3D printing, and musicians’ health worlds, evaluated all of the submissions.

University of Ottawa biomedical PhD student Robert Hunter was just announced as the winner for his innovative clarinet and brace design.

Rob Hunter with the first iteration of his 3D printed clarinet and brace. [Image: Bruce Deachman via Ottawa Citizen]

“I was interested in this competition because of my combined background in biomedical engineering including biomechanics, 3D CAD design, and music,” Hunter explained. “I used to play clarinet a lot in high school, and when I would practice for long periods my right thumb would become sore from supporting the weight of the instrument. So when I read about this competition, this problem immediately sprang to mind for something I could try and solve.”

His design redistributes the clarinet’s weight to larger muscle groups, which improves its ergonomics. His proposal also included an assessment of technical and playing aesthetic demands.

“While music lifts the soul, many musicians – professionals and amateurs alike – struggle to perform due to injury,” said Trudel. “This challenge was an invitation to designers to employ new technology to the benefit of musician’s health. We were so pleased with all the creative ideas we received, and specifically, to award the KUN Prize to Robert Hunter.”

[Image via Canada Makes]

This week, Hunter received the KUN Prize, valued at $36,500, which, according to the challenge brief, includes “a fabrication and fitting budget, performance of the instrument at the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s November 4th 3D StringTheory concert, and a $5k cash prize.” The prize is sponsored by Marina Kun, the president of KUN Shoulder Rests Inc. – a veritable icon in the music industry – while fabrication is sponsored by Canadian companies Precision ADM and Axis Prototypes. In addition, a short piece of music will also be commissioned for the instrument, which will be performed at the OSO’s 3D StringTheory concert on November 4th at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum.

As an additional part of the 3D StringTheory project, the OSO commissioned a local violin maker and the Industrial Technology Centre to create eight original 3D printed string instruments: four violins, two violas, and two instruments that resemble a viola da spalla, which is a small cello played like a violin. Then, Montreal-born composer Harry Stafylakis will write an original piece of music inspired by these new sounds, which will also be performed at the concert.

“People might say you’re taking a chance, but I don’t think so,” Trudel said in regards to the 3D printed instruments being included in the concert. “Taking a chance is not doing anything. The status quo is putting classical music in trouble sometimes. For me, it’s about the art and it’s about motivating people to try something, so when people come to see this concert, it’s an event. They’ll be, ‘Oh, wow, what are they going to do? What’s going to happen?'”

However, the orchestra is taking a bit of a chance, as most ordinary 3D printing materials can’t match the tone and resonance of wood.

“I think there’s probably nothing better than wood in certain areas. Whether there are materials that can get close to the levels of wood, I’m sure they’re getting close with polymers,” said Frank Defalco, the Manager of Canada Makes.

However, if 3D printing can get past that issue, the technology offers many benefits to the music world, including easily customizable designs, small-batch manufacturing, lighter weight, lower costs, and improved accessibility.

[Image: 3D StringTheory]

OSO concertmaster Mary-Elizabeth Brown, who also teaches violin to students over Skype in several countries, said, “I have first-hand experience trying to help a young person in the Arctic Circle get her hands on a violin, and that’s a little bit of a challenge. But if there’s a 3D printer in that community, maybe her parents wouldn’t have to spend several thousand dollars to fly a violin in.”

Brown had the chance to play the first iteration of the 3D printed violin, which she felt had a “different kind of soul” than her own violin. Trudel acknowledged that the first prototype was built thicker than necessary, for fear that the neck would break due to tension of the high-E string.

“The first one was a bit on the safe side, it was thicker and doesn’t resonate as much. But we were surprised that it’s very much in tune and it plays well,” Trudel said. “So we’re fine-tuning the instrument — no pun intended — to see what kind of sound we can optimize.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts in the comments below.

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