Cabe Atwell

January 18, 2013

5 Min Read
3D Printers Give New Life to Old Recordings

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.


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 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.

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About the Author(s)

Cabe Atwell

Cabe is an electrical engineer, machinist, maker, cartoonist, and author with 25 years’ experience. When not designing/building, he creates a steady stream of projects and content in the media world at element14,, MAKE ─ among others. His most recent book is “Essential 555 IC: Design, Configure, and Create Clever Circuits.

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