As 3D printers increase in popularity, more and more people are using them to bring their unique projects to life.
They've been used to manufacture everything from weapons parts (AR-15 lower receiver) to medical prosthetics (four-year-old Emma Lavelle’s "Magic Arms"), and now some are using them to bring new life to both old and new forms of recordable technology. In this case, 3D printing technology has been applied to restoration, and it only seems fitting that a relatively new invention was used to revitalize old recordings by prominent inventors from over 100 years ago.
Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have used 3D scanning technology to restore some century-old recordings made by three notable inventors that include Charles Sumner Tainter (inventor of an early telephone transmitter), Alexander Graham Bell, and his cousin Chichester Bell. The three predominately collaborated to bring about what was considered high-fidelity for audio systems (notably their graphophone) back in the 1880s. The team experimented using various mediums for their recordings that included discs and cylinders made from beeswax and cardboard, brass, and glass. They succeeded in making a series of recordings (more than 200 of them) on glass-based discs, which were sent to the Smithsonian in an effort to preserve them. However, they never sent the playback device needed to listen to the discs which were then (over time) considered useless and left to decay.
Click the image below to see photos of 3D printing and scanning bringing life to old music.
National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens examines a glass disc recording containing the audio of a male voice repeating "Mary had a little lamb" twice, made more than 100 years ago in Alexander Graham Bell's Volta Lab. (Source: Rich Strauss, Smithsonian)
Decay they did -- until the research team from LBL got hold of them. They brought them back to life through restoration and were able to play the recordings 125 years after they were made. To accomplish this, the team employed the use of a 3D scanner, known as IRENE (Image Reconstruct Erase Noise ETC), to non-invasively scan the discs and create a high-resolution image. They then processed the digital image, which pieces together the damaged disc and removes any errors (from wear and physical damage) after which specialized software calculates and recreates the engraving method (in this case a stylus used to etch the glass/wax) to reproduce the audio into a digitized format. The team was successful at recovering the audio from six Volta Graphophone discs and is looking to restore and preserve a host of early recordings from the Library of Congress. While giving new life to old technology using 3D scanning technology is certainly impressive, 3D printing is capable of converting the latest technology in audio into a medium very few still use.
3D printing technology will definitely appeal to those fond of still playing music (or any other recording) through LP records spinning along at 33rpm. Amanda Ghassaei from Instructables.com has applied the relatively new hobby of 3D printing to bring digital audio back to the record player. The LPs she produced aren't vinyl, but plastic, and was done using a Objet Connex500 printer with UV-cured resin with a high 600dpi resolution to create the discs layer by layer. In order to actually hear the audio, she had to forego using any CAD software (apparently they're not powerful enough for the complex 3D modeling needed to produce an LP).
Instead, she wrote her own program that automatically converts any audio file into a 3D model. She states that the software works "by importing the raw audio data which is then converted into the geometry of the record through software calculations (mostly done through open-sourced processing software), which is then converted into a 3D printable file format." So is the end result like listening to your favorite MP3 deposited onto a plastic disc with only a minor reduction in audio quality? In a word, no -- not even close. Think of it like listening to that pocket AM radio you had back in the 70s and you'll get an idea of the overall sound quality. This is because the audio quality is only a fraction of that of an MP3 with a sampling rate of only 11kHz with a 5-bit to 6-bit resolution. While converting digital audio files onto an LP will not create decent sound until 3D printing technology evolves higher resolutions, the fact that it can be done now (albeit with a lo-fi listening experience) is certainly an accomplishment and a step in the right direction of converting digital audio into an analog format. However, printing LPs isn't anything new as a few others have already done this.
One of the first printed records was from aerospace engineer Chris Lynas, who created a "custom Fisher Price record player LP" inscribed with the song "Still Alive" from Portal early last year. He made the Fisher Price facsimile by painstakingly measuring out the records that came with the player. He then used a toothpick and tone generator to figure out the notes of the song and transferred them over to notes that the record player could synthesize (yet another long process). Lynas then used Processing software to test the notes (16 unique notes in all) and make new ones to fill in the gaps (in order to piece the song together). Once all the kinks were worked out, he uploaded the finished file (through Processing) directly to Shapeways, which did the actual printing (unknown as to what printer they used). While the painstaking process Lynas used to get his record printed is unique, it brings the question of piracy to the table even if it is a reduction in quality. Even so, it's still yet another accomplishment that was made possible by the fledgling 3D technology that emerging into the mainstream and has no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Interesting from the standpoint of analog/digital resolution performance. It's been estimated that the equivalent digital channel spec. needed to equal "obsolete" 30 i.p.s. analog tape, which was the standard for high-quality recording back in the day, is a 500Khz sampling rate at 24 bits of TRUE resolution. The smallest signal modulations encoded in the groove walls of a vinyl LP are on the scale of a wavelength of visible light. 3D printing will have to go a long way to match that.
Greg, I agree. The videos showing the reproduced record were pretty impressive. The phonograph player reminded me of my Close and Play toy I had as a child. The limits of 3D printing applications are truly limited by one's imagination. Cool article Cabe!
Couldn't agree more. I can't wait to see what sorts of applications appear. Especially as the technology evolves toward improved resolution and a wider range of materials and post-processing capabilities.
It's one thing to replicate auto parts--it's another to revive history! That's a very cool application of this technology. And as an avid music lover who misses that scratch of vinyl, the idea that this could breathe new life into records also is appealing.
As someone who is just starting to rip their LP collection (I finished my first album just two days ago) I'm a bit perplexed. I understand the archival aspect of transferring old media (I wish I had something to scan records instead of playing them, an inherently damaging exercise). But I was expecting to read about someone printing a long gone DEVICE to play long obsolete media, not printing that obsolete media. Seems a bit of a waste, especially since printers are inherently rectilinear devices, not polar (as a record is), so getting a usable result would require a much higher resolution printer than currently exist.
Records (discs such as those shown in the article) use polar (radial?) coordinates (theta-radius). I would assume it would be extremely difficult to get adequate results printing a record in polar coord. using an x-y printer (and the article does imply this).
Interesting point about cylinders, though. Early commercial Edison recordings were cylinders. Of course, cylinders use both coordinate systems in three dimensions (fixed radius, with x axis and theta variables). You could print a cylinder by printing a flat sheet with x-y coordinates, soften the print and wrap it around a cylinder form. It would probably yield better results than a disk (except at the joint).
No, No, Rob. I was referring to planar discs, not recording cylinders, same as you.
Remember your coordinate systems from trigonometry class.
Polar coordinates are a system describing the location of a point from the origin by three angles and a radius.
Cylindrical coordinates are a system describing the location of a point from the origin by use of an angle, a radius, and a Z-axis displacement. This coordinate system (not the shape of the object) is much more appropriate for describing the groove geometry of a planar phonograph record. The angle and radius describe the location of the groove, and the Z-axis displacement describes the depth of the needle in the groove. It is the variation in depth (Z-axis) which stimulates the crystal or magnetic cartridge transducer, creating the sound.
In fact, a waveform of only the Z-axis sound would be a representation of the audio.
Polar co-ordinates (without further specification) is a 2D system, locating a point in a plane by angle and distance from a reference point. The other common 2D system is Cartesian co-ordinates which locates a point by distance from a reference in two predefined directions. There is also higher dimensional Cartesian and Polar systems.
It sounded from your description like you were trying to define Spherical co-ordinates, a 3D system of TWO angles and a distance. The two angles correspond to lattitude and longitude on a globe. Spherical co-ordinates is one of two common 3D polar systems, the other is cylindrical co-ordinates, a system of two distances and an angle.
There is a 3D system that uses three angles. It involves two predefined reference points on a predefined reference plane. The three angles are the polar direction from each of the reference points and the angle from the plane. A 3D system that involved THREE angles and a distance would be overconstrained.
BTW - Your description of Cylindrical co-ordinates was completely correct. I was referring to the description in the previous paragraph. It was your "polar" co-ordinates that I think you meant "Spherical" and put in an extra angle. It occurred to me after I posted that my reference was ambiguous.
Ahhhhh, Bach! (sorry, bad pun-ish MASH reference).
Yes some older recordings used the Z-axis to encode audio info but most use the radius (I believe "squiggles in the groove" is the technical term), so a simple polar coordinate system is usually sufficient. LP's/45's squiggle both sides of the groove independantly to encode stereo, so that does add a z-axis component.
All of this just shows how hard it really is to capture info from obsolete media, and how much harder it would be to "print" a record ("disc") with any usable fidelity.
The printed audio is only surface texture. The higher the resolution printer, the better the audio quality. I suspect that in the near future almost perfect copies could be made. Or perhaps like an LP printed with CD quality audio. Either way, the future looks good for keeping the LP record around.
To be completely honest, I like LPs, not just for their music quality, but the packaging is big. It's cool to see the pictures larger, it's a fun novelty. But with high bit rate audio files, that surpass CD quality and approach analog, I see no practical use for LPs anymore. (Maybe the hardcore DJ business?)Think of it like integrating a curve, eventually digital will match it so fine that the difference will be indistinguishable.
Plus, one speck of dust popping the sound of an LP ruins it for me. I have a few old Beatles records that have permanent tiny scratches, playback drives me crazy.
Cabe, this music lover has been hearing those arguments, and promises promises, for a couple decades. For some types of music, in particular the human voice, the sound simply isn't as good. I've been sorely disappointed on that end. OTOH, instrumentals, especially strings, are great or OK on a) CDs and b) a lot of high bitrate audio files. Regarding picture size, etc.--it was a real shock back in the day to get CD versions of LPs and not be able to read anything on the covers--or later, when an "album" was initially released as a CD, and the album cover content dropped to practically zero. OTOOH, now we sometimes get inserted booklets, which can hold a lot of info.
When CDs were just starting to get distributed several record labels simply mastered the CD from vinyl with a hefty low pass filter to kill the pops rather than digging the 2 track master out of the vault. it was a sin, considering the wonderful technology that was available, and my old vinyl copies were much better than the CD. I had a copy of "Layla" that was just terrible until they remixed the CD from the original 16 track in 1990. Geoff Emerick, made certain that he original masters were used for the Beatles material and now you can even hear the dust on the faders (rotary back then).
Not for me, your mileage may differ. I retired my vinyl years ago, and I'm a firm believer that the CD is king and that digital music reproduction gets a bad reputation because of squished down MP3s. Tape has way too much hiss, except when used with DBX or other companding. That said, I still love my old Fender tube amp, so I do believe in some retro gear.
Nevertheless, it is unfortunate to say, since 3D printing is based on digital signals, the LPs created are digital copies. In other words, less quality than they could be. In the case of preservation, It is good enough. Now it just seems silly to print an LP. I suppose it's a good option for those hipsters out there. It's all about image these days.
The 3D printing revolution seems to have a knack for quickly moving technology ahead by way of collaborative effort and even a little friendly competition -- all of course in the name of scientific advancement.
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