Concert with 3D-printed instruments set for world debut in Ottawa

In what's believed to be a first anywhere, a concert on Sunday at Ottawa City Hall will feature a performance by an ensemble of musicians playing only 3D-printed instruments.

'3D String Theory' to feature all-female ensemble playing only 3D-printed instruments

Mary-Elizabeth Brown will be playing lead violin in a concert on Sunday at Ottawa City Hall using a 3D-printed violin. (Leah Hansen/CBC)

In what's believed to be a first anywhere, a concert on Sunday at Ottawa City Hall will feature a performance by an ensemble of musicians playing only 3D-printed instruments.

Mary-Elizabeth Brown, a member of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, will be playing lead violin. 

Though the appearance of the 3D-printed violin is different, many listeners have trouble distinguishing a difference in the sounds they make, she said. 

"I've had people hear both side by side and then ask me after which is which," she said. "[The 3D-printed instrument] sounds a little bit different. It has a darker, more mellow tone to it, but it feels about the same to play."

Brown said they worked with engineers in the 3D-printing process to get the sound of the instrument exactly right. The first iteration was too heavy, she said, making for an uncomfortable playing experience.

They experimented with different shapes and different material densities, trying to get the sound just right, she said. The design they settled has only a very slight difference in sound from the original. 

"If we think about sound in terms of light, the 3D-printed violin has a more diffuse kind of light, it's kind of like an incandescent light bulb," she said. "A violin that's made of wood tends to be more like a spotlight. It has a very focused sound that travels further."

Making music accessible

Aside from playing professionally, Brown also teaches music — sometimes via webcam — to students in far-flung parts of the world.

A 3D-printed violin belonging to the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. (Shawn Peters)

She said she's hoping the advent of 3D-printed instruments will make music more accessible to learners in rural areas and developing countries. 

"Sometimes it's hard to get a violin to the Arctic circle," she said. "But if there's a 3D printer in that community, we could easily print a fractional-sized violin so that a child could start."

That, Brown said, is the future benefit of this musical experiment.

"We know so much more about the benefits of music to the developing brain, so this, I hope, will bring more access to more people."

Sunday's world premiere for an ensemble playing 3D-printed instruments is called 3D String Theory, and will take place at Ottawa City Hall starting at 12:30 p.m. with traditional chamber music beginning at 11:30 a.m. Tickets can be bought online, but standing room is free.