Gear

The 3D Printed Record

By James Baines

0

Music is as invisible as money these days, and by that, I mean we’re careless with it. I still bitterly mourn the death of my first MP3 player like a widower left with the debts of the deceased.

But now one artist is using 3D printing and laser cutting as a way of immortalizing music in new and innovative ways. Amanda Ghassaei has not only found a positive use for a machine that, up to this point, has been best known for creating things that kill people, but she’s also managed to press Radiohead onto a wood record. I spoke to her to about her inimitable vinyl creations, waiting for Brian Eno to call, and pressing music onto quesadillas.
 
Noisey: Hey, Amanda! So one of the many beautiful things about your work is the way you've given music that physicality that's so lacking in a digital age. What does it mean to you to put your favorite music into physical form?
Amanda: Most of my projects focus on creating physical interfaces for the manipulation/control of audio in various ways. Vinyl is a compelling medium for me because it is an elegant and relatively lo-tech solution to making music physical, it allows sound to be sped up and slowed down by touch, it intertwines the audio with the physical properties of the material, and allows the listener to leave their own mark on the medium as it slowly wears down from use.
 
What spurred you into trying to make 3D records and wood vinyls?
Recently, I've been interested in algorithmically generating 3D models for 3D printing. It's an interesting technique because it allows you to potentially pack a lot of data into a 3D model, so you can create something so incredibly detailed that it would be impossible to model by hand. 
 
The laser cut records were an extension of the 3D printed record project. There was a ton of interest in the 3D printed records, but currently, very few people have access to the type of 3D printer needed to print them. Laser cutters, on the other hand, are a lot easier to find, more precise, and can cut a wide variety of materials, so I tweaked my 3D printing code to work with lasers as well to make it a little more accessible.

Do you think record companies can be using your work as a template for pressings in the future?
I'm not sure this technique will ever be adopted for mass production because it doesn't scale as nicely for a huge run of records as traditional vinyl manufacturing, but I think there are some niche markets and projects where using a technique like mine could be advantageous. The most interesting thing to me about this technique is that each record made can be completely customized, so this would be perfect for a pressing where the audio on each of the copies is unique. I've been thinking for a while now that it would be cool to do the release of a generative music album like this. Maybe Brian Eno will call me one day.
 
Other than that, the ability to cut records on a variety of materials is exciting. People seem to be really interested in the wood records. I'd love to see this taken a lot farther; for example, I think it'd be cool to do a run of records on a bunch of recycled porcelain plates, or Frisbees or something. I tried to make a record on a quesadilla, but it was kind of a disaster, unfortunately.
 
Hah! What are the digital processes you go through to trap Thom Yorke inside a wood disc?
The process is actually relatively simple: I wrote a program in Processing that takes the raw data from a piece of audio and converts it into a cutting path that can be sent directly into the laser cutter. The program essentially imports an audio waveform, shrinks it down, and lays it out in a long, spiral path. The cutting paths are exported from Processing as PDFs, and from there, you just load the files into the laser cutter and press "Go." The 3D printed record process is similar to another Processing script that algorithmically transforms a piece of audio into a 3D model of a record, which can be sent directly to a 3D printer. 
 
How laborious is the the whole thing. From looking through your videos, it looks like the process requires an aerospace engineering-level of attention to detail?
Writing the code required a fair amount of knowledge about audio, signal analysis, 3D modeling, vector cutting formats, and even some trigonometry, but anyone can download my code and run it without any understanding of these concepts. I've broken down both the 3D printed and laser cut record projects into ten steps so anyone with sufficient motivation can do it themselves, no engineering degree required!
 
Obviously, the quality is low at the moment. Is this something that can be improved, or is it the sign of the limitations of working with such strange materials?
Some of the materials, especially grainy/inconsistent materials like paper and wood, limit the precision of the audio that's cut into them, but I don't see any reason why the more homogenous materials (acrylic and resin) couldn't sound comparable to vinyl. For now, the limitation is really in the precision of the machines. The grooves on my 3D printed and laser cut records push the machines to their maximum tolerances, but currently, this leaves them about one or two orders of magnitude (10-100x) larger than typical vinyl microgrooves.  So, for now, the only way to improve the quality of the sound is to increase the resolution of the machines.
 
 
You mention on your site that the instructions to each process are available for those who want to replicate. Is it just a case of having a 3D printer and following your instructions?
At the moment, not quite. The models are easy enough to make, but currently, there are no printers priced for personal use that are capable of printing them. There are some online fabrication services that can theoretically print a record, but there are still huge obstacles to getting a print like this made; currently, a 3D model of a record with only five minutes of audio on it requires about 1.5GB of storage space, so generating, moving, and processing a file like that poses a fun set of technological challenges. I've crashed a ton of computers during the 3D printing pre-processing phase—where a 3D model is converted into hundreds of horizontal slices so it can be printed layer by layer. As this technology moves forward, we'll see more precise machines come down in price and even become accessible to individuals and small businesses. New 3D printing file formats that can pack data more efficiently are in the works as well.
 
That being said, if you have access to a laser cutter, any laser cutter, you should be able to reproduce the results I've had with the laser cut records by following my instructions. 
 
How limitless are the possibilities of 3D printing? I had a record exec ask the other day if we could 3D print a music video. That's impossible right?
3D printing is pretty amazing. I've been using these machines for a while now, but it still feels like magic to be able to model something on the computer and then hold it in my hands later that same afternoon. For me, the most exciting feature of this technology is how much room there is for customization. There is no other process that can generate completely customizable, complex objects as easily as 3D printing and other forms of digital fabrication. I think it's entirely possibly to create a 3D printed music video, I've already seen some interesting work using 3D printing for stop motion animation!
 
Do you take requests? I'd love a copy of GZA "Fame"...
Hah, yeah I've had a ton of requests for records, even been hearing from some independent record labels about doing limited releases, but this is obviously more work than I could possibly complete by myself. For now, I've tried to keep the process as accessible as possible to encourage people to make their own if they're really interested in the project, and I'm also looking into ways for anyone to have these things made through online fabrication services.
 
What's next for you? Are there other materials you're thinking of working with?
Honestly, I think the bulk of my record making days are behind me now. The fun part of this for me is to see where other people's minds go when they start experimenting with the code and process. I've posted everything I know about these records on Instructables so that other people can learn about how they were designed and maybe even make their own records or adapt my code into their own projects. It's all free as in "speech" and "beer" (that's a nerdy open source reference).
 
What's the DIY community like in San Francisco at the moment? I get the feeling from Instructables that it's a very open community.
Instructables is a huge, global online community where people post step-by-step documentation for the things that they make/code/cook/build by hand. It's highly interactive; people on the site are always exchanging ideas and collaborating. It's one of the last places on the Internet where the comments are actually really, really interesting and helpful. The central theme of the site is to write about your projects so that anyone could follow your steps, so most of the content is open source.
 
The intersection of tech and DIY is pretty interesting right now. There are a ton of people out there who aren't necessarily engineers, but are learning about coding and electronics and 3D modeling online on sites like Instructables, and it's created this culture of openly sharing everything. From my own experience, I studied physics in college, and though that informs a lot of my work and methods, there's not a physics class or a book (yet) where you learn how to program a tactile, gestural MIDI interface. A lot of my own education has come from reading about the projects that people are documenting on these online forums, and it motivates me to perpetuate this culture of sharing.

Sweet. Thanks Amanda!
 
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You can find Amanda’s work, and others in the San Francisco DIY community here.

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