Living in the Future

Okay, so it can’t make tea, but this MakerBot gizmo is pretty dang cool. And there’s a K-cup machine on the other side of the office, so I guess we can make do with a replicator that only does plastic.

That’s right, The Scholars Lab has a MakerBot Replicator. Several of us new Praxis Fellows have been giggling with delight over the shear magic of the thing. Jeremy helped me print a 3-tone whistle design we found on thingiverse, and it really works! Here’s a recording of me blowing into the it, slowed down by a factor of 8 so you can really get the full effect of the three tones.

Watching a 3-d model become actual plastic right before your eyes is of course pretty cool. But my glee about the Replicator is not mere idiot glee. I plan to put this thing to use. I’ve been composing music for small mass-produced instruments for a while now, including a series of performances involving plastic soprano recorders. (Yes, like the ones you played in grade school. Okay, so maybe some idiot glee is still at play here.) These instruments have a number of advantages over those conventionally chosen by composers of concert music. For starters, they cost about $2.49. That means that on a modest budget I was able to purchase identical instruments for a group of 40 or so performers, many of whom were self-described “non-musicians.” Part of the concept of that project was to create an ensemble that included dancers, visual artists, and other sorts of people with diverse backgrounds in addition to a few “trained” players.

I’ve continued to use small, cheap instruments such as harmonicas in a number of collaborations with choreographers. Just a few weeks ago I ordered a large box of plastic whistles online, in part to discover any subtle variation between them in terms of pitch, sound quality, or response. Such variation could be compositionally useful. When I learned in our first-day tour of the Scholars Lab that a similar plastic whistle could be “printed” from a digital model, I had a mild flash of inspiration:  why rely on mass-produced small plastic instruments? I could design my own.

A quick search of and I’ve already found an ocarina and even a recorder. The next step is to learn something about 3-D modeling so I can start modifying theses designs. What will be the effect of subtle variations in sizes of various parts of the mouthpiece, placement of finger holes, etc? My first “original” design will probably be a simple tuned set of whistles made by printing off a number of them at different scales. Someone has already made a double-sized variation on the standard whistle used as a Replicator test print, which of course should sound an octave lower than the normal size. With other factors I should be able to build an entire scale and end up with something like an irritainment handbell choir.

I’m also starting to fantasize about designing a physics of music class where the final project would be an instrument design for the Replicator. Do you think we can make a bugle or a small-scale trombone? How about a shawm or a simple clarinet? This takes me back to 8th grade, when I built a flute out of PVC pipe for a science fair project. I guess I’ve been waiting for the MakerBot to appear in my life for quite some time.

Jeremy says that he and Wayne have been talking about how to put together a lab so that more UVa folks can access this technology, and I hope that comes to fruition. I’ve been showing off my new 3-tone whistle to friends in the Music Department, and many of them already have ideas for projects. Max had independently been thinking of using desktop fabrication to build boxes for electronics projects. (If you’ve ever tried to cut a slot for a slide potentiometer in a Radio Shack project box with a Dremel then you understand how exciting this is!) And he just sent me an article about a new low-cost 3-D printer that uses stereolithography instead of heated plastic like the MakerBot, meaning much finer resolution. With developments like this on the horizon its exciting time to start experimenting.

As I said, my fellow fellows have been excited about the Replicator too. Fellow Gwen has been printing jewelry. But my question for you, internet, is what (if anything) does this have to do with Prism? Collective interpretation of tchotchkes anyone?

Chris Peck is a composer/performer whose work has been presented extensively around the US and internationally. His works involving collaboration with contemporary dance, audience participation, various mixtures of trained and “untrained” performers, and site specificity have been performed at the Venice Biennale, Performa, ImPulsTanz, Improvised and Otherwise, The Whitney Museum, and The Kitchen, and reviewed…


  1. Hey, Chris — Great post! If you’re going to try the recorder, you might want to use this updated model. (I was looking into this a while back, but haven’t had time to print the model yet.) And I’ve been working on the Scholars’ Lab-as-MakerSpace concept for a while, so would love to talk more with you about this. Short version: it’s happening — soft launch in the Spring semester.

    • Thanks for the recorder-printing tip, Bethany! And I’d definitely like to be involved in the lab project if there’s some way I can be helpful.

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