Growing up, some of my first memories were of listening to records on my parents’ 1970s era record player- tunes by John Denver, ABBA, The Beatles often floated through our house. A couple years ago I bought a portable record player from Craigslist and started my own personal record collection. There is something about the sound quality of record players that can’t be replicated by state of the art stereo systems.
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So I was fascinated when I heard that Amanda Ghassaei, Tech Editor at Instructables developed a way to convert digital audio files into 3D printed records. Ghassaei realized that modeling the intricate lines and grooves which serve as the physical expression of each song was too difficult to do in CAD, so she wrote a program that automatically makes this conversion. Raw audio data is imported, the geometry of a record is created and then exported as an STL file, which is the standard object design file format used by 3D printers. Ghassaei describes her process of developing a 3D printed record in intricate detail on Instructables. Her account offers a technical look at the experimental approach she took to testing the capabilities of current 3D printing technology. The videos featured on the site shows that 3D printing still has its technical limitations when it comes to printing a record, but that it is possible. While the sampling rate and the bit resolution for the songs on the records are lower than the standard for records and mp3 files, it is still relatively easy to make out the song being played. The records are printed using an Objet Connex500, which is an industrial grade printer that can print in significantly higher resolution (600dpi for x and y axes; 16 microns for z axis) than consumer-oriented 3D printers like Makerbot or Ultimaker. The Objet Connex500 can print using a variety of materials (i.e rubber, resin, ABS etc.) including up to 14 different materials in one job. The 3D printed records are made of a sturdy white resin.
3D printed record. Image Source: Instructables.com
I think this project is a really innovative way of testing the boundaries of 3D printing technology, but it also made me wonder about the intellectual property issues that are raised. The music industry has fought tooth and nail against the illegal sharing of digital music files since the days of Napster and Grokster. But I don’t think that they had envisioned that they would have to expand this fight to an older technology such as the record. If someone legally purchased an mp3 file on iTunes but decided that they wanted to be able to play the file on her record player, would it be considered illegal for her to print a record for personal use? One could argue that it would not be illegal on the basis that an individual should be able to play the music they’ve purchased on multiple devices. This has been the issue that so many consumers have contended with the music industry about in the fight against Digital Rights Management (DRM). Although DRM use has in large part been defeated in the music industry, with online music giants like iTunes and Amazon transitioning to selling DRM-free music several years ago, the 3D record project is interesting because it circumvents the DRM issue by converting digital music files into an analog physical object (record) to be played on an analog device- an old-school (but very cool) record player. But if you perhaps never owned the original digital music file for a song, say, Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but were able to download the STL file for the song on Pirate Bay or another file sharing site in order to 3D print a record this would most likely be considered a violation of U.S. copyright law.
There has been a resurgence in the popularity of record players in recent years and I wonder, could the potential ease at which one could convert an mp3 audio file into a 3D printed record be a business opportunity for record player manufacturers? If you’ve been to a record store or flea market recently, you may have noticed that you can get older 45s or 33s for 50 cents or $1, but more current music on vinyl such as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” can retail for as much as $20-$30. If individuals are able to easily and cost efficiently transfer their digital music collection to records, this provides incentive for them to purchase record players. What I’m saying here is that what may be perceived as a disadvantage for one part of the music industry (record labels and the artists who are signed to these labels) may be considered an chance for market growth for another part of the music industry (record player retailers, manufacturers and distributors).
Finally, I want to point out that the process of converting a digital audio file into a physical analog record is a very interesting phenomenon. We most often talk about the movement from analog to digital- this is how technology has typically developed. A prime example of this was the transition made by all U.S. full-power television stations from analog over the air broadcasting to digital or DTV broadcasting in 2009. We often expect that the evolution of technology will be characterized by artifacts which become physically smaller, less noticeable and consequently less tangible. But I am curious about what happens when a technology challenges this trajectory by recalling, referencing or modifying its predecessor, as in the case of the 3D printed record.
Will digital music technology help to carve out a greater niche for analog music technology?