3D-printed flutes hit the right notes

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The custom microtonal flutes are the work of researchers at Australia's University of Wollongong (UOW)(Credit: UOW)

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Researchers at Australia's University of Wollongong (UOW) have created a number of 3D-printed custom flutes that can play microtonal tunings otherwise unachievable with standard flutes, thus opening up a whole new series of tones to flute players. The same research could also lead to instruments which are easier for disabled people to play.

When it comes to instruments, musicians can be a conservative bunch, and we'd hazard a guess that many guitarists would pick a handmade wooden axe over a new 3D-printed alternative, for example. But by making a whole new series of microtonal notes (i.e. smaller than a semitone) available, the new research may offer a compelling reason for flautists to consider trying out a 3D-printed flute.

To create the custom flutes, the UOW team made use of existing research data to mathematically plot the precise size the instrument must measure in order to create certain tones, including its diameter and length, and the placement of the holes. Data from modeling software was then fed into a 3D printing machine, and a custom flute was duly manufactured.

"There are huge possibilities for the future of this project," says UOW's Global Challenges, Manufacturing Innovation Leader, Professor Geoffrey Spinks. "We can see many applications moving forward with areas like custom-made instruments for people with physical restrictions, student models for use by children where the instrument grows as they do, customized instrument design where alternative designs can be printed and tested prior to production, as well as print on demand options."

Several flutes with custom tunings have been produced and have featured in live theatre performances around Australia. Spinks further posits that the flutes could have commercial potential and eventually lead to musicians being able to order flutes which offer a particular desired microtonal tuning.

You can see (and hear) the flutes in use, in the following video.

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