There is something captivating about records. LPs, albums, vinyl, platters, or records; whatever they have been called, for people who grew up with them, the CD and MP3 may be fantastic inventions, but they will never replace the good ol’ record. The soft scratch when the needle first drops, and the warmth of the sound that they produce keeps the attention of performers, producers, and listeners. Even after it was clear that records were no longer going to be the primary means for listening to music, bands like Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots released their albums on vinyl (in purple and in white respectively) during the first wave of vinyl nostalgia, to follow the triumph of the CD.
There’s the sound that creates loyal record listeners, but the album artwork, and the physical object of the record itself, are also creators of record devotees. The album artwork became a language of symbols, standing in for the names of albums, the songs they contained, the band, and events that occurred, for which they had been part of life’s soundtrack. The LPs themselves had to be carefully handled, held by the edges in open palms and the track selected by angling your line of vision until the light caught that thicker line separating songs.
Since 2006, music has been undergoing a vinyl revival as music lovers look for an authentic music experience. This vinyl revival has now crossed paths with a revolution in technology resulting in a 3D printed record. This project, one of three sponsored by Bacardi Beginnings, marks the first time that an original song has been released on a 3D printed LP album.
The song, Down Boy, was performed by Bobbie Gordon, an up and coming singer/songwriter, and produced by Kele Okereke, frontman for Bloc Party. Gordon performed the piece at a release party where the limited edition album was also for sale. Having an in depth understanding of what makes records so appealing meant they couldn’t short the album artwork, and so they released four sleeves designed by London based art director and illustrator Kate Moross.
The record itself was printed on a Stratasys Objet500 Connex Multi-material 3D printer using Amanda Ghassaei’s algorithm that converts the audio data into the 3D geometry data. More than a gigabyte of data is required to print an entire song, and so the album is printed as the standard 12” LP, while still being a single. Ghassaei admits that the resin residue of printed albums will ruin a turntable’s needle, but enthused: “It’s really cool to kind of push the technology and see what you can get out of it.”
The 3D printed album is created by more or less reversing the MP3 ripping process. First a digitized waveform is captured, using Python to extract it from the MP3 file. Then, using processing, and open source for the automation of file generation, the shape is rendered into an STL wireframe. Software is then used to wrap that in a spiral form to be printed as a 3D 12-inch disc. However, Ghassaei admits:
“It’s really stripped down, it’s down to the bare essentials. It’s never going to be as good as vinyl. It’s not really set up for that. But, it’s cool because you can really be creative with it.”
Ghassaei had first tried her process with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which sounded “like he was singing in a tunnel with a scarf over his mouth.” The idea of a 3D printed album that she had been kicking around could finally be made into a reality because printing resolution has become sufficiently fine; 600 dpi with 16 micron steps, to create the grooves necessary for a needle on a turntable to pick them up. She had to downsample the audio data quite a bit, using an 11Khz sampling rate, because the resolution wouldn’t allow anything higher. That means the album has about ¼ of what you would expect out of an MP3.
The 3D printed albums are thicker and stiffer, more like the old-school 78s than the latest version of vinyl recording, and it may be that 3D printing never becomes the standard way of releasing albums. It wouldn’t be at all that surprising, however, if this is just the first step down a pathway that will lead to something amazing in its own right.
Would you like to be able to listen to a 3D printed record? Do you think this will ever become the norm? Discuss in the 3D printed record forum thread on 3DPB.com