Jan 23, 2018 | By Tess

Violinist Sean Riley needed a six-string violin to play a particular piece of music. Rather than spend thousands of dollars buying one, the innovative music student at the University of Texas decided to 3D print it.

Sean Riley plays his custom 3D printed electric violin

Riley, a PhD candidate in Musical Arts at the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Museum, is a well practiced musician. Playing violin since the age of seven, the talented musician obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in violin performance from The Juilliard School.

When he came across a particular piece of music, “The Dharma at Big Sur” by composer John Adams, there was nothing that could get in the way of him playing it. Not even his lack of equipment. You see, while most violins have four strings, Adams’ piece is written for a six-string violin.

“I have made it a point in my career to keep an eye out for incredible new music,” explained Riley, who found the piece while browsing in the UT Austin library. “‘The Dharma at Big Sur’ is written by a composer named John Adams, one of the greatest composers in the world at the moment… It was amazing. I had to play it.”

Students Sean Riley, Daniel Goodwin, and Rebecca Milton working on the 3D printed violin project

Almost serendipitously, as Riley was walking back through the library thinking about how to get his hands on a six-string violin (which are not especially common instruments), he glanced into the Foundry, a makerspace facility located in UT Austin’s Fine Arts Library.

The space, which is accessible to all UT Austin students, is equipped with a range of technologies—including 3D printers, laser cutters, textile machines, and computers—all aimed at realizing creative projects. Almost immediately, Riley came to the conclusion that if he couldn’t buy an expensive six-string violin, he could try to 3D print one for a much lower cost.

Of course, the violinist would need some help in designing and manufacturing the one-of-a-kind instrument.

3D printed prototype of the six-string violin stands next to a traditional four-string violin

Daniel Goodwin, a mechanical engineering senior and a regular user of the Foundry, was Riley’s first collaborator for the project. “I was working there at the time,” said Goodwin. “Sean came in wanting to make this six-string violin. I asked him what his background was. He said, ‘I’m a violinist.’ I said, “You’re crazy.’”

Despite the complexity of the proposal, Goodwin was too intrigued by the project to let it pass by. The pair eventually reached out to Rebecca Milton, a student of sculpture and studio arts, to help in the aesthetic design of the instrument. “I wanted someone to take this project beyond just a violin,” added Riley.

The three students used a variety of materials and means to create the six-string electric violin, and the final piece consists of a 3D printed neck and body, and porcelain ribs molded from driftwood, bones, and shells (Milton was inspired by the piece’s coastal theme).

Rebecca Milton, a sculptor and studio arts major, helped design the 3D printed violin

Because the violin is electric—and did not require a hollow shape—the students had some freedom in designing the violin’s minimal frame. The electronics, for their part, were made by a New York firm that specializes in making custom parts.

The 3D printed violin, which the students worked on for about a year, is now complete and Riley is enjoying playing it. The violinist says that while playing a six-string violin is taking some getting used to, the sound of the 3D printed instrument is fantastic.

“I'm most proud of my team,” he said. “They have been amazing and brilliantly patient with all the shenanigans that a project into such uncharted territory entails. It’s hard to describe how amazing it feels to hold the violin in my hands. I can feel that it has been made. I can feel Daniel’s hard work. I can feel Rebecca’s hard work. I feel like I’m not even playing a violin any more. It’s something different.”

Riley’s first performance with the 3D printed electric violin will take place on February 22 at UT Austin’s Jessen Auditorium. He will also be dedicating his final Doctor of Musical Arts performance next semester to the innovative instrument.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Ken M wrote at 1/25/2018 4:03:52 PM:

Back in my day we would have to acquire a violin the old fashioned way, by building it from cardboard boxes and rubber bands.

Daniel Goodwin wrote at 1/25/2018 1:25:51 AM:

Hey! That's me on the violin design. Thanks for the writeup! Follow me @dannthehuman

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