UConn makes 3-D copies of antique instrument parts

July 27, 2014 by Pat Eaton-Robb

(AP)—Researchers at the University of Connecticut are using medical technology to breathe new life into some antique musical instruments.

Dr. Robert Howe, a reproductive endocrinologist in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, says his medical practice showed him how computerized tomography could make precise 3-D images of body parts. As a student of music history, he realized the same CT scanning technology could help him study delicate musical instruments from the past.

Howe, who is also a doctoral student in music theory and history at UConn, last year brought his idea to music theory professor Richard Bass, who contacted Sina Shahbazmohamadi, an engineer and the school's director for advanced 3-D imaging.

Together, they have developed a process for using CT scanning technology not only to make images of those instruments but also to print 3-D copies of parts that will allow more of them to be played.

This week, they began seeking a patent for that process.

The CT scanning alone has yielded exciting results, including images that show the construction of an 18th-century English horn was much more complicated than experts originally thought. Because nobody would allow one of the rare and delicate instruments to be cut open, experts couldn't see the intricate set of bores and wooden pins used to hold it together, Howe said. The construction also didn't show up on a traditional X-ray because the pins are made of the same material as the horn.

A breakthrough by Shahbazmohamadi allowed the team to scan metal and wood at the same time. That allowed them to get exact 3-D images of items such as a mouthpiece from one of the first saxophones made by Adolphe Sax in the 19th century.

"Only three original mouthpieces are known to exist in the entire world," Howe said.

Before this technology, an attempt to copy the handmade part would have required measuring it with metal calipers and other instruments, which would have left marks. An artisan would then have to translate those measurements into tooling for a duplicate, a time-consuming and costly process.

So instead, musicians have been jury rigging modern mouthpieces to fit old saxophones as best they can. The musical results can be disappointing, Howe said.

Paul Cohen, a saxophonist who teaches at New York University, said Howe's work could go a long way in helping experts understand what centuries-old music was meant to sound like.

"If they can accurately reproduce the dimensions in the mouthpiece that Adolphe Sax himself invented, it would be of fundamental, seminal importance in understanding our instrument," he said.

The UConn team scanned the original mouthpiece and, after some experimentation in density, produced a plastic replica on a 3-D printer that can be fitted to the original saxophone. The team also has scaled the imaging data to size to make mouthpieces for a range of Sax's horns, from B-flat bass to E-flat sopranino.

"This is pretty darned good, and it's an $18 piece," Howe said. "The technology is not only very, very accurate, but very inexpensive."

The images can be kept on file, and as the technology improves, machines can make exact copies in the original materials, Shahbazmohamadi said.

The same technology could eventually be used to make copies of entire instruments or to repair broken ones. With the computer technology, flaws in the original can be fixed, he said.

Howe has already played one instrument, a 1740 recorder, with a replacement part made by the 3-D printer.

"The universal availability of 3-D printing, which is happening as we wait, will make all this work very relevant and not just for ," Howe said. "The ability to measure and replicate items that are difficult to measure and replicate is going to explode."

Explore further: Neuroscientists study our love for deep bass sounds

Related Stories

Researchers use CT to recreate Stradivarius violin

November 28, 2011

Using computed tomography (CT) imaging and advanced manufacturing techniques, a team of experts has created a reproduction of a 1704 Stradivarius violin. Three-dimensional images of the valuable violin and details on how ...

Maine company unveils high-tech SWAT team robot

April 18, 2013

A Maine company that's developed manned and unmanned tanks with names like "Ripsaw" and "Riptide" for the military and Hollywood filmmakers has unveiled a new contraption—a high-tech police shield that sits atop a miniature, ...

Sharing musical instruments means sharing germs

May 12, 2011

Germs survive for several days in wind instruments including the clarinet, flute, and saxophone, according to a pilot study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. The researchers, led by ...

Recommended for you

Researchers discover new material to help power electronics

March 18, 2019

Electronics rule our world, but electrons rule our electronics. A research team at The Ohio State University has discovered a way to simplify how electronic devices use those electrons—using a material that can serve dual ...

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 28, 2014
Some notes on the printing medium would be interesting. Its characteristics, especially WRT sound. How much leeway do they have in what they can reconstruct? For instance, I'd guess they don't aspire to print reproduction Stradivarius violins.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.