Behold the “3Dvarius,” the World’s First 3‑D Printed Violin

There is a per­pet­u­al argu­ment among stringed instru­ment afi­ciona­dos about the eso­teric val­ue of so-called “tonewoods.” Cer­tain­ly, to most dis­crim­i­nat­ing ears, the dif­fer­ences between an acoustic gui­tar, man­dolin, or vio­lin made of sol­id spruce or maple and one made of ply­wood seem son­i­cal­ly obvi­ous. When it comes to elec­tric gui­tars, the dis­tinc­tions between mate­ri­als can seem more neg­li­gi­ble. In blind tests many of us might have some dif­fi­cul­ty telling the dif­fer­ence between an elec­tric gui­tar made of the finest woods and one made of cheap bal­sa, lucite, or even an oil can. (Not that dif­fer­ences don’t exist!) It’s hard­ly con­tro­ver­sial to point out that acoustic instru­ments depend upon their mate­ri­als and work­man­ship in ways elec­tric instru­ments don’t.

So how might dis­crim­i­nat­ing ears respond to an elec­tric, dig­i­tal­ly 3‑D print­ed acrylic vio­lin, based loose­ly on a real Stradi­var­ius? Can such an instru­ment repli­cate the sweet sus­tain of an acoustic vio­lin, Strad or oth­er­wise? You can judge for your­self in the demon­stra­tions here. Cre­at­ed by French engi­neer and musi­cian Lau­rent Bernadac, the “3Dvarius”—the world’s first 3‑D print­ed vio­lin—is per­haps, reports Wired, “a har­bin­ger of what’s to come for musi­cal instru­ments.” Crit­ics have shown how it falls far short of recre­at­ing the sound of a tra­di­tion­al instru­ment. (See vio­lin­ist Joan­na Wronko com­pare the two at a TEDx Ams­ter­dam talk here). And yes, the 3Dvarius may look “more like an avian skele­ton than a stringed instru­ment.” But it does have some advan­tages over tra­di­tion­al vio­lins made of wood.

For one thing, syn­thet­ic instru­ments are high­ly durable and light­weight (vio­lins and cel­los made of car­bon fiber have been on the mar­ket for sev­er­al years). For anoth­er, the 3Dvarius can indeed make some pret­ty sweet sounds when plugged into Bernadac’s rig, con­sist­ing of var­i­ous effects ped­als and loop­ers. At the top, see how he uses his set­up to cre­ate jazzy mul­ti-lay­ered, mul­ti-track arrange­ments of pop­u­lar songs with the 3Dvarius. And hear a few of those songs here, along with snazzy videos—including U2’s “With or With­out You,” the Game of Thrones and X‑Files themes, and “Se Bas­tasse Una Can­zone” by Ital­ian singer/songwriter Eros Ramaz­zot­ti. (See many more on Youtube.) The 3Dvarius web­site has a step-by-step expla­na­tion of how the instru­ment is made, from ini­tial design to sur­face treat­ment and final assem­bly.

Despite its name and inspi­ra­tion, the 3Dvarius does­n’t claim to actu­al­ly dupli­cate a Stradi­var­ius, a feat long thought impos­si­ble by even the finest mod­ern luthiers. Even com­put­er sci­en­tists admit: no mat­ter how good machines get at repli­ca­tion, replac­ing tra­di­tion­al, hand­made vio­lins with print­ed copies “would lead to dig­i­tal­ly cloned instru­ments,” writes Wired, “and the loss of son­ic char­ac­ter that makes music, well, music.” And it isn’t only son­ic char­ac­ter that mat­ters to musi­cians. Sur­pris­ing­ly enough, in blind tests, many vio­lin­ists can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between a Stradi­var­ius and a high-qual­i­ty new­er mod­el vio­lin, but these find­ings do not dimin­ish the Stradi­var­ius mys­tique. The look and feel of an instru­ment and its make and pedi­gree mat­ter. As musi­cian and writer Clemen­cy Bur­ton-Hill points out, much of our fas­ci­na­tion with the Stradi­var­ius vio­lin has to do with the “sto­ry of Stradi­vari,” as well as those of the musi­cians who have owned and played his instru­ments.

And though it may be pos­si­ble to come close to their tones with cheap­er mod­ern copies and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, we still gush over Jimi Hen­drix’s Stra­to­cast­er or Jim­my Page’s Les Paul. The 3Dvarius, I’ll admit, is a very cool idea, but it’s hard to imag­ine a dig­i­tal­ly-pro­duced plas­tic arti­fact ever acquir­ing the same intan­gi­ble aura of not only the most famous instru­ments in the world, but also of unique, hand-craft­ed new instru­ments on their way to mak­ing his­to­ry. As Wal­ter Ben­jamin argued in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­ducibil­i­ty,” it’s the authen­tic­i­ty of “aura”—the spe­cif­ic traces of his­to­ry and the fin­ger­prints of artists and mas­ter craftsmen—that we trea­sure in art. These are qual­i­ties that elude the most advanced tech­no­log­i­cal process­es.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

What Makes the Stradi­var­ius Spe­cial? It Was Designed to Sound Like a Female Sopra­no Voice, With Notes Sound­ing Like Vow­els, Says Researcher

Why Vio­lins Have F‑Holes: The Sci­ence & His­to­ry of a Remark­able Renais­sance Design

Musi­cian Plays the Last Stradi­var­ius Gui­tar in the World, the “Sabionari” Made in 1679

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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