What Does the 3D Printer and the Synthesizer Have in Common

In a recent interview for Dezeen, architect, industrial designer and artist, Ron Arad stated that 3D Printing is abused by designers, in much the same way as musicians used synthesizers in the past.

“Synthesisers were abused completely and so is this technology we’re talking about” Ron Arad

Now while this statement may have have an element of truth, it is worth exploring the comparison in the context of Ron’s position in the design world, and what this concept opens up.

First, let’s compare the 3D printer and the synthesizer.

The first analogue synthesizers made it possible for one instrument to make a massive range of sounds. Professional musicians used these expensive synthesizers to emulate existing instruments in a recording studio and on stage, to broaden their palette of available sounds, whilst only needing to know how to play the keyboard, not strings, woodwind, brass, etc.  At the same time some more experimental musicians started to experiment with the synthesizers to make sounds that were otherwise impossible, tweaking resonant filters and using effects to make sounds that were unique to the synthesizer.

The first 3D Printers (or rapid prototyping machines) made it possible to make a massive range of shapes. Engineers and designers used these expensive 3D printers to emulate products quickly in their studios and workshops, to test parts before manufacturing.  For many years this remained the case, the 3D prints were expensive and only used to emulate other materials and processes.  

What happens when the synth/3D printer gets cheaper?

The first synthesizers were giant beasts of machines with panels of knobs and patch bays to program the sounds until asian companies like Roland, Yamaha and to a lesser degree the US made Moog started to bring out smaller cheaper synthesizers for professional musicians to use on stage, and tour their albums that used the synthesizer sounds.  As the synthesizers became mass produced, the price came down and amateur musicians were able to afford the synthesizers to broaden their sound palette, either with preset sounds that emulated brass, woodwind, strings, organ, piano or with the more experimental sounds that could only be made with the synthesizer.

The first music to come from the synthesizer was often cheesy, then as musicians started to experiment with the sounds we started to hear music that was entirely driven by the synthesizer, from KrautRock to disco and techno.  As the price for synthesizers dropped, so to the use of synthesizers grew to the point that almost every song on the radio had some synthesizer action.  At first it was often upfront and obvious, then slowly as musicians started to use synthesizers in a more sophisticated manner they became subtle and ubiquitous.  

All musicians around the world had access to professional level instruments.  Combined with the reduction in cost of recording equipment, first on tape then digital equipment the DIY music revolution leveled the playing field and independent bands could release their own music, add the amplifier of digital distribution and the music industry was entirely upended, changing the music landscape since.

As with the first synthesizers, the first 3D printers were big expensive machines that only engineers could have access to and operate.  Because the expensive, the machines were used sparingly and the 3D print bureau’s of the time charged massive amounts for access to the machines (as many still do).  

As companies like Shapeways made 3D printing cheaper and easier to access, we saw a sudden shift in the use cases, from the ‘engineering prototype’ to individuals experimenting things that would otherwise be impossible to make.  This in many ways is exactly what happened with the synthesizer.  As designers become more familiar with the best way to use 3D printing, they move way from ‘emulating prior manufacturing processes’ and away from ‘making the otherwise impossible’ to subtly integrating 3D printing into design where it has the maximum benefit.  

As the price of 3D printing drops we also see a democratization of design, as the same 3D printer Ron Arad uses for his designer sunglasses can be used by anyone around the world with an internet connection and a Shapeways account.  When Ron Arad states that designers are abusing 3D printing, he is saying it from a privileged position where he has had access to many tools of manufacturing for years. Now emerging designers can access this 3D printing, it is often their only choice in taking a product to market with no risk.  In the same way that young musicians in the 80′s may have only had access to a synthesizer and a drum machine, so they made music with a synthesizer and a drum machine.

Designers Are Not Abusing 3D Printing, They are making the Most of the Tools at Their Disposal 

As the price of 3D printing drops we also see a democratization of design, as the same 3D printer Ron Arad uses for his designer sunglasses can be used by anyone around the world with an internet connection and a Shapeways account.  When Ron Arad states that designers are abusing 3D printing, he is saying it from a privileged position where he has had access to many tools of manufacturing for years. Now emerging designers can access this 3D printing, it is often their first choice in taking a product to market.  In the same way that young musicians in the 80′s may have only had access to a synthesizer and a drum machine, so they made music with a synthesizer and a drum machine.

We are going through the same process now, early synthesizers emulated existing instruments as rapid prototyping emulated other manufacturing. Early ‘synthesizer music’ was driven around the technology just as early ’3D printed art’ is around math.  Modern digital synthesis of music is so advanced and granular to have become ubiquitous in almost all contemporary music.  We expect 3D printing, digital fabrication to mature to become an integral part of many of the objects around us in much the same way as synthesizers have in music.

2 comments

  1. Savannah

    This is so cool. Something I wish I was better at modeling myself!

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