Together with its partners, Bayer MaterialScience has developed a concept for a futuristic cello made out of aliphatic polyurethane. The use of a transparent plastic material makes the instrument lightweight and also makes it possible to incorporate a whole series of optical effects courtesy of integrated electronics and other digital means. (Source: Teams Design Company)
Nice article, Elizabeth. Ultimately, the proof will have to be in the sound. I remember when Ovation introduced an acoustic fiberglass guitar some years ago. It was light, and many musicians loved it. I preferred the sound of wood. It will be interesting to see what happens with these new instruments.
Indeed, Rob, no matter how good an instrument looks or how many bells and whistles it has, it's still not worth very much if it doesn't sound good. Still I think it's quite innovative and a good thought to allow people to see the music as much as hear it.
For an electric instrument the material may not matter too much and reminds of the Ampeg Baby Bass from the early Sixties or Dan Armstrong guitars from the late Sixties. On acoustic instruments I've never heard anything that could replace wood. I have a Garrison guitar that used a glass resin for the kerfing (framework), binding and bridge plate, and wood everywhere else. All the wood pieces were laser cut and glued to the one piece glass resin framework. The result was a very bright, responsive and distinctive instrument that still sounds very much like wood. Gibson bought the company and then a few years later closed the factory and killed the Garrison line, a very odd business move.
You point out something important, tekochip--this is an electric, not acoustic instrument. So the material is not quite as crucial to the sound as it would be with an acoustic instrument. You sound like quite an instrument aficianado with your talk of guitars...or perhaps just a guitar player? :)
A holophoner is a musical instrument that displays colors and images relative to the music being played and the emotion of the musician.
It is exceedingly difficult to play. As one of the lead characters remarked, "There are only a few people who have the skill necessary to play it, and they don't do it very well."
I believe a similar instrument is described in Azimov's Foundation trilogy.
As a classically-trained french horn player, I am amused at the explosion of plastic brass instruments available...the plastic trombones in all colors of the rainbow seem to be selling especially well. At least it sounds better than a vuvuzela.
Oh well, I have a stable of four plastic recorders and a plastic melodica, and they really don't sound half bad.
I spent a number of years as a club musician and in the process I collected far too many instruments and amplifiers. I remember a DJ making the comment, "If you ask a guitar player what his first guitar was he'll name three".
Right now I'm down to a dozen guitars and a stand up bass in the living room (doesn't everybody have one?).
I would not expect plastic to work in anything but non-acoustic instruments. Wood is an amazingly complex material and its ability to resonate in many different subtle ways makes it the musical instrument material of choice for acoustic stringed instruments that depend on a hollow chamber (like guitars, violins, pianos, etc.). It's also one of the oldest materials for musical instruments, along with the use of bone for the "woodwinds" class, e.g., flutes.
Wood is truly magical stuff, and I sometimes wonder if that's because it was once alive. I'm rather fond of early Seventies Guild acoustic guitars and have two identical D25s and a G37. Despite the fact that the two D25s are the same model year, were built with the same tooling and have the same dimensions, they are drastically different instruments, sound different and even differ in weight. The heavier D25 has a much deeper tone, and the lighter one just seems to lack the same charm. The G37 is the same dimensions as a D25, but was made with maple sides and back rather than mahogany. The G37 is a very bright, midrange instrument that feels like it's made of concrete. Despite weather changes, the instrument is always in tune and is immune to humidity.
Peavy electric guitar designer Chip Todd firmly believes that electric instruments are not affected by the body material, but I really have to take exception to that opinion. All of my electrics have the same pickups, and two are even the same model year, but none of them sound the same, and that's why guitarists have so many guitars. Just listen to an electric guitar acoustically and you can easily tell the difference between a Fender and a Gibson, between a Strat and a Telly, and between my otherwise identical SGs. The only difference is in the wood, just one tree to the next. You know, Japanese wood planes are designed so that the plane is pulled toward the woodworker, supposedly to pull the soul of the wood into the craftsman.
Thanks for that illustration, tekochip. Much of the variation in wood from one apparently identical instrument to another is, indeed, because it was once alive, as opposed to engineered. That makes it unique. And also because the structure is so much more complex than anything made of plastic. Although some people don't think of other living beings as having individuality (especially plants), they certainly do. Each biological organism is different from every other one due to DNA and the fact that it changes and grows over time, giving it great complexity, vs being stamped out once. This is even true of identical twins.
Ann, this is such a great point that you make and I totally agree. Wood instruments, even if identically made, will never sound exactly the same due to the composition of the wood and the changes the wood, as a biological entity, goes through over time. It's one of the things that makes acoustic instruments and music itself so special. And I actually just met the "identical" twin of a friend of mine and even after knowing him for about two seconds I already picked up on the differences between him and the brother that I know...so I agree, I don't think any two things in nature are exactly alike.
Elizabeth, the identical twin example is a good one. I know a pair very well and they are quite different people. Biological entities simply are not "made" the same way that manufactured objects are, which has many structural and functional consequences.
I didn't even think of that, Chuck, but you're right. Great point. This could bring a new level of experience to people who are deaf. Though they may not be able to hear the music, they can experience it in other ways. And because many times people who have lost one sense have their other senses heightened, it may give them just as pleasant an experience as if they could actually hear the music itself.
@Charles: I think that is an interesting thought, particularly when you consider that Beethoven was such a genius that he could continue to compose when he could no longer hear. I think I was taught that the instruments were so ingrained in his brain that he could imagine what they would sound like, but he could no longer conduct. Perhaps seeing a light show would have permitted that. But do you think there is a chance that the optics would have caused a mental distortion in how he remembered the instuments?
I heard a song writer telling a story one time how a song just popped into his head while driving to church and he immediately went to his studio and laid down a track as he said had he continued to church, the first hymn he heard would have driven the new song from his mind.
I think interpretation of music and the brain is so complex that it's hard to tell what kind of effect seeing the music would have in terms of how the music is heard. The best comparison I can think of is when you go to a concert and there is a visual display behind the artists playing life music--that integration of visual and audio. Adding that other sense certainly changes your perspective, and sometimes, I think, can even be distracting from the pure experience of hearing the music. Anyway, it's all quite interesting to ponder, and will be something people can explore through projects like this.
As many have already said, wood instruments sound best when made out of wood. The Theremin was entirely new and different. This complex partnership, with musicians included, could create something completely different and innovative.
This is cool to look at. I hope it's just a test run for something more.
Yes, Nadine, you're right. I do think that this is meant to be something completely innovative and not really mimic the sounds of classic wood instruments, but rather enhance them with more sensory experience. Although I do think the music coming from it is still supposed to sound quite good. I think at this point it's just a prototype but I do expect more experimentation in the future from Bayer and its partners.
As many of you have already said quite well: Wood is an extraordinary material that, simply put, cannot and will not be replaced in the acoustic musical instrument arena.
Many attempts have been made both in the past and more recently to try other alternatives. The quest on driving costs down, repeating the same uniform sound quality in a fabricated item, freedom from variations on wood properties and environmental conditions affecting the wood instruments, are a few of the supposed advantages that synthetic materials would offer, in theory.
But the plain truth is that wood is not easy to mimic, and practically impossible to substitute. Those attempts have produced different sounding items that are definitely not on the same class as even middle price wood instruments. An Ovation guitar is recognized as a different instrument in itself, for example.
One Grand Piano manufacturer of the Concert Hall level (Fazioli), has applied very advanced and through, rigorous engineering analysis of the legendary instrument, performed with the dedicated support and knowledge of Europe's best Research Institutes, and has produced some improved examples that have received accolades from the most respected authorities on concert grand pianos. They have lenghtened the strings (from the std. 274 mm to 308 mm), added a fourth pedal and revised many details; But the findings were that specific kinds of woods NEEDED to be used, absolutely!, and that many very old design aspects HAVE to be respected. And that is easily understood when one examines the effects of the wooden components on the inharmonicity of the piano tones (see 1943 Schuck and Young measurements of the spectral inharmonicity in piano tones).
Many guitars have been made with alternate materials, keeping most of the traditional design for an acoustic one, but even fine design tuning with the aid of electronic and computerized lab instrumentation have failed to approach the original sound quality. A friend of mine has one made from many pieces of Acrylic plastic (polymethyl metacrylate) but the sound is barely passable, its only visually attractive, being completely transparent... a showcase of how an acoustic guitar is built inside, but little else.
I´ll bet that this Cello will require a heavy (extreme) electronic manipulation of it's strings vibration spectra, just to resemble an actual Cello that anyone can recognize, because the acoustic phenomena that the wooden box of the traditional instrument is what gives it the character of the final sound. Just seeing that the shape of the futuristic instrument bears absolutely no resemblance to the real one, means that the electronic manipulation it will require will be of a huge magnitude.
Al in all, a curious and interesting piece of conversation, but absolutely no match for the real ones. There isa reason some Stradivari's have reached such astronomic prices (a 1697 Stradivari violin known as "The Molitor" was sold online by Tarisio Auctions for a world-record price of $3,600,000), and continue to be played today after more than 300 years of being made!
As a fact, the connoted Cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Davidov Stradivaris, an antique cello made in 1712 by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivary. One thing to remember is that a wooden instrument has to have a rich coat of special varnishes. thus, a single ply of polyurethane will never be able to behave as a composite of multiple coats of varnish over another marvelous composite: wood.
It would be certainly a much more credible approach if Bayer MaterialScience would have respected the basics of the original design in their novelty a little more. Amclaussen.