Printing the past: 3D printing for early music

Assistant Artist Manager Fiona Russell explores the use of 3D printing as a tool for researching and producing historical instruments

Early music has firmly established itself as an integral, substantial and thriving part of the classical music industry. Despite this, one wonders if there is a need for the early music movement to reinvent itself; to modernise in order to stay relevant and interesting to today’s audiences. Should the early music specialist embrace the era of fast moving digital and technological advances or remain stubbornly resistant to modern day influences in order to remain true to HIP?

Something of an anachronism has been created with the introduction of 3D printing to the production of renaissance and baroque instruments. The early steps in 3D printing date back to the mid-1980s, although it is only during the past decade that it has moved into the awareness of the general public. The process uses computer aided design (CAD) to produce an object by printing layers of a solidifying material, such as polymer. Today, it has permeated industries from fashion to biomechanics: US company New Story are tackling homelessness and poverty by creating whole communities of printed buildings; families who can’t afford to replace outgrown and prohibitively expensive prosthetic limbs can have one printed at a fraction of the cost; and scientists are actively exploring printing working human organs.

Incidentally, detailed studies of Egyptian faience (a self-glazing ceramic and a precursor of glass and clay-based ceramics) are leading to improved techniques in 3D printing in ceramic. Photo: William the faience hippopotamus, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art © public domain

In the music industry at large, 3D printing is being used to produce speakers, headphones, instrument parts and even whole instruments. In 2015, Steinway unveiled its extremely limited-edition Sun and Moon Matched piano, featuring Taiwanese porcelain designs printed in thin ceramic tiles. They were used in the piano’s music stand, side panels and matching stool, and held in place with printed ceramic screws. In the field of early music specifically, 3D printing is proving a useful aid to practical research, in much the same way that historians and archaeologists are using the technology to study Egyptian tombs and artefacts.

Original instruments in museum collections around the world have long been measured and documented to provide researchers and performers with more information. However, playing, and even just handling fragile original wind and brass instruments in particular, is generally prohibited for conservation reasons, and while measuring can give a reasonably accurate picture of dimensions, it does not give comprehensive insight as to how the instrument plays or how different components of the instruments work together. As the technology has advanced over the years, the methods for measuring and producing plans and diagrams have also progressed; instruments can be x-rayed and put through CT scanners as well as manually measured.

3D printing has now made it possible to produce multiple identical copies of the original instruments on which to experiment, as well as test theories relating to internal dimensions and volume. Dr Jamie Savan, Director of Research at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, has produced some excellent work through applying the use of CAD and 3D printing to organological research, specifically to the two treble ‘Christ Church’ cornetti, held in Christ Church, Oxford, and historical cornetto mouthpieces from collections in Munich, Vienna and Paris.

From a commercial perspective, printed instruments can be quickly and accurately produced very quickly and at low cost, in comparison to instruments that are hand-made using traditional methods. A printed cornetto can cost just 10% of the price of a wooden instrument produced in the traditional way. Part of the cost is a reflection of the materials, of course (nylon polymer is a great deal cheaper and easier to obtain than a fine piece of boxwood), but once the design files have been produced and the hardware obtained, producing instruments is a mechanical operation requiring relatively little skill and human input. Indeed, anyone with access to the design files and a 3D printer would be able to produce their own instrument.

On the face of it, it would appear that 3D printing enhances research for the musicologist and opens up opportunities to students and amateur enthusiasts who might otherwise not be able to try out these more unusual instruments without considerable financial investment. There is, of course, a more controversial side to the discussion.

At the same time as being able to reproduce the original instruments, imperfections and all, there is the opportunity to correct these flaws; or to iron out some of the very characteristics that define these instruments. It is impossible to take any one instrument from a collection and say with confidence that it is a standard representation of an instrument from that period in history. Instruments were made for specific players and occasions, and pitch varied considerably, not only at different points in history but from country to country, region to region, and even town to town. It would be fair to guess that some of the better-preserved instruments are exactly so because they were showpieces for display and visual admiration, made as gifts to present to aristocracy and monarchs, or possibly that they were not of sufficient quality to be successfully played in everyday music making. All of which makes generalisation a rather dangerous game!

RICARDO SIMIAN © Susanna Drescher 2013

Cornetto player Ricardo Simian agrees: “All sources show that, if anything, there was almost never an agreement on anything. We can certainly preclude specific ideas and options as non-historic, but, even after such a process, a huge range of alternatives are still available.”

Simian himself has turned to 3D printing and is not only using the technology to research original instruments, but also as a means to develop and enhance them. His instruments have some practical features: the larger tenor cornetts are in three pieces rather than one to aid portability, and he has added keys and adjusted the curve to make the instrument more comfortable to hold. He has taken things a step further by creating the ‘perfetto’; very similar in appearance to the renaissance cornetto with some subtle but key differences. It is made in two pieces with tuning joint (the regular cornetto is in one piece with little flexibility in its overall pitch) and with a heptagonal outer edge in order to make it easier to hold rather than the traditional octagon of the notoriously difficult-to-hold renaissance instruments. A seventh double fingerhole addresses some of the particular tuning peculiarities of the cornetto and a simpler set of fingerings can be used. But what of its place in today’s early music scene? “I didn’t think of a specific musical role for it when I designed it,” says Simian. “I had technical and acoustical ideas and concepts when I worked on its development, but the musical role that players will, or will not, see for it is entirely up to them and I wish to be surprised by it.”

We’re left with the question: should the early music movement hang on to its traditions, with its symbolism and rhetoric that would have been obvious and understood by audiences at the time, or should it make itself more accessible and relevant to audiences of today? I would suggest there is room for both perspectives.

Christopher Monk (d 1991) was one of the first modern day cornetto and serpent players; a rather eccentric and key figure in the early music revival (pictured below with a serpent). Monk first made cornetti from moulded resin instead of boxwood in the 1970s, and his workshop has continued to make these instruments ever since. When Christopher Monk Instruments recently revamped their resin model, they tried printing instruments but felt that they didn’t perform as well and returned to producing them in resin, which retail at around 30% of the cost of their boxwood instruments. Portrait by June Mendoza.


This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of The Green Room.

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