Are 3D-Printed Records The Next Big Revolution in Music?

Vinyl records have been making a strong comeback to the music industry since 2006.  The reasons are many, but they primarily break down into two: people’s resonance with collecting something tangible in order to establish a sense of “ownership”, and their perception that it sounds better.

Of course, as a DJ, there is also the tactility (being able to “feel” the music, especially as a turntablist) and the plain-old coolness factor.

The 3D printing revolution, while still in its infancy, is showing constant proofs-of-concept regarding the technology’s usefulness.  It only makes sense that it would intersect with the vinyl resurgence.  The first prototypes are already starting to pop-up.

But how do these first runs hold up on the practicality scale?  Is this a novelty item, or the first step in yet again revolutionizing the distribution of music?

“Project Three” and The Record-Printing Process

Back in December, a pop-up shop (only open for two days) held a record release party in central London.  The project was sponsored by Bacardi Beginnings, the rum giant’s attempt “to push the boundaries of music production and creation.”

 

This particular (and apparently, final) phase of the project involved not only the creation of a new track, but an entirely new way to distribute it: via 3D printed phonographic record.

Even though this happened 7 months ago, I only recently heard about the project (which seems to have received some sudden social media buzz).  Being both a vinyl-loving DJ and a lifelong geek, it was natural for this to get my wheels turning.  Or my records spinning, as it were.

The song is titled “Down Boy”, and is a collaboration between upcoming singer/songwriter Bobby Gordon and Kele Okereke of Bloc Party.

One of four sleeves designed by Kate Moross
One of four sleeves designed by Kate Moross

Of course, much of the appeal for a physical record release has to do with its artwork.  Four sleeves were designed by Kate Moross, a London-based illustrator having previously worked with acts such as Disclosure and Simian Mobile Disco.

The actual record was printed on a Statasys Objet500 Connex resin printer.  The data file was created using an algorithm created by Amanda Ghassaei (a Physics graduate specializing in nanotechnology, solar cells, and electrochemical/optical sensors who has also built a few cool toys for music producers).

The process starts with a digitized waveform extracted using Python (a scripting language) from the original data file.  The data is then processed into a .STL wireframe file, and software then wraps that into a circular 12-inch disc… ready for printing.

Here are the geeky and gory details according to Amanda’s website:

use raw audio data to set the groove depth– parse through the raw audio data (this is the set of numbers that defines the shape of the audio waveform) and use this information to set the height of the bottom of a spiral groove. This way, when a turntable stylus moves along the groove it will move vertically in the same path as the original waveform and recreate the original audio signal.
draw record and groove geometry– A 3D model is essentially a list of triangles arranged in 3D space to create a continuous mesh, use the data from the last step and some general record parameters (record diameter, thickness, groove width, etc) to generate the list of triangular faces that describes the record’s shape and the detailed spiral groove inscribed on its surface.
export model in STL format– the STL file format is a 3D format understood by most 3D printers. To get Processing to export straight to STL, I used the ModelBuilder Library written by Marius Watz.

To put it in more accessible terms, it’s not unlike reversing the MP3 ripping process.

This concept is now able to be made into a reality because 3D printers are improving, to the point where the resolution is sufficient enough (600 dpi with 16 micron steps) to create the very fine grooves necessary for the turntable’s needle to pick them up.

3d printed record

Challenges With 3D-Printed Audio

Though 3D printers are at a point where they can create grooves that replicate audio, they are not yet ready to compete with traditional vinyl records.  For now, the “records sound better” camp will want to put a pin in this one.

The printer’s 600 dpi resolution doesn’t allow for the quality we expect from a 12″ or a WAV file… or even for a 192kbps mp3, for that matter.  In fact, Amanda had to downsample the audio quite a bit…. to 11KHz.  (Your typical audio file or CD is 44.1KHz, so we’re talking one quarter of the typical sampling rate.)  A 5-6 bit resolution puts it at one-thousandth the resolution of a typical 16-bit CD.

In other words, it sounds kinda like crap for now.  Even Amanda described her first conversion of Smells Like Teen Spirit (listen below) as sounding like Kurt was “singing in a tunnel with a scarf over his mouth”

But hey, it works!  The songs are certainly recognizable.  It’s definitely some impressive work even though it’s not yet practical.

Audio quality isn’t the only concern, though.  In the above video, notice how quickly the stylus traverses towards the middle of the record.  That’s because the grooves are about ten times wider (and deeper) than the grooves of your typical piece of vinyl.  This gives you a limit of about 5 – 6 minutes of audio on one side.  And that amount of audio is around 1.5 gigabytes of 3D modeling data.

Grooves that deep mean an increased tendency for the needle to skip… a problem Amanda ran into when attempting to print a copy of Daft Punk’s “Around The World”.  The intro sounded fine, but as soon as the bass hit, it bounced the needle right out of the groove.  This is a problem that record mastering engineers have dealt with for decades, but is only amplified by the fact that the grooves are wider and deeper as a by-product of lower “resolution” than a typical record.

Edison’s original tests with a phonograph record (produced using technique and machinery that had not yet matured) had much larger grooves, which caused a noisy signal.  This is exactly the case with a 3D printed record.

Additionally, the resin used in the printing of these albums will eventually ruin the turntable’s needle.

3D printing

Industry Ramifications of Printed Music

Sure, 3D printed records aren’t quite ready for prime time yet.  But the technology is there, the concept is proven, and the market would seem to be ready.  Vinyl sales have been trending up for the past 8 years or so.

Should the technology reach the point where the quality and resiliency of printed records reaches or exceeds the standards set by vinyl (and I would certainly expect such), it may mean the full obsolescence of the last few vinyl cutting shops left.  People who still perform this service would be wise to take note of where this technology is going, and possibly be prepared to purchase high-end 3D printers in the future.

Even if/when consumer-level 3D printers are able to print high-quality records, there is still an art to mastering audio for physical media distribution.  These older mastering engineers might suddenly find an increased demand for their services in order to get the most out of the platform.

Of course, there will likely be an increased need for smart programmers and engineers to improve these audio conversion algorithms.

In the future, it’s quite possible that “downloading music” could mean downloading a file which you then print (at home) onto a physical disc.  Imagine Beatport offering you choices of .wav, .mp3, or .stl files.  Will iTunes still try to manage your music collection when it consists of 3D modeling files?

Of course, this invites another option for piracy as well.  I don’t think we’re all that far away from finding archives of record packages consisting of 3D model data and album art on ThePirateBay.

Will shady shops begin selling illegal replicas of commercial album releases and passing them off as legit?  I’d imagine so, if the film industry is any indication.  Vinyl-only labels, cutting shops, and the RIAA should be paying attention to this stuff now.  The latter will probably be a day late and a dollar short, if history repeats itself.

It’s also interesting to think of what doors this will open up in the DJ niche:

“Soon I’d also like to experiment with some more creative applications of this technology.  For example, printing out a record with many adjacent closed loops of ~2second looping samples.  This way you could set your needle down in one groove and listen to a loop repeat over and over, then tap the needle to the side to switch to another loop.  Assuming all the the loops have a similar time signature, you could turn this record into a cool, interactive sample mixer.”  – Amanda Ghassaei

Perhaps Native Instruments will eventually be selling Remix Sets that you can print straight to records.  And, no doubt, some prolific turntablist like Q-Bert could see the value in releasing custom sample/scratch records which users can print at home for a fee.

That’s perhaps the most exciting part of all this… the experimentation that could come about via the greater community of DJs and music lovers.  I can already see people writing in to tell me about custom timecode projects, endless looping records, and more… all created in their lab or living room.

recordagain

Laser-Cutting

Amanda has also experimented with a different technique to cut records… literally.

Using an Epilog 120 Watt Legend EXT laser, she has been able to create similar prototypes.  Though they are of even less quality than the 3D printed ones, it’s exceptionally cool because of the options it opens up for materials.

3D printing is an additive process (building layer upon layer to achieve the desired height of each “line”), but using a laser means thinking subtractive.  You can literally cut the record into your material of choice.

Amanda has successfully cut the audio on wood, acrylic, and paper.  The scripting is written such that it can be modified for any song, material, or record size.  You can give the prototype a listen, and see some cool footage of the process, right here.

The laser cutting device used has a theoretical resolution of 1200 dpi (twice that of the above 3D printer).  However, due to the kerf of the cut and “some tricks [she] used to avoid crashing the laser cutter”, the precision was dropped to about 1/6th.  The result is a bit-depth of about 4-5 and a sample rate of around 4.5KHz.

A laser-cutting method was explored due to the costs of high-end 3D printing being “prohibitively high”, and she wants DIY-ers to start running with this.

Wooden Laser-Cut Record

Round and Round We Go

It’s interesting that bleeding-edge technology is being used to push towards a format originally invented in the 1800s.  It says a lot about what some people want, not out of music, but out of the entire experience of owning and playing music.

It remains to be seen how much of the iPod generation will carry on the torch of hand-held music media.  But it certainly can’t hurt that those of us who grew up with records, tapes, CDs, or 8-tracks are using modern technology to recreate and reinvent the experience.

The convenience of digital music cannot be overstated, but we are being repeatedly shown that there is still a market for people who do not base every decision on its convenience.  I’ve probably owned close to 20 cars in my life, and only two had an automatic transmission.

I just like the way it feels.

For more sound clips, geeky details, videos, pictures (taken by Audrey Love), and even modeling files/instructions for the adventurous:

Printed Record