Engineering Professor Creates Technology to Replicate Rare Pieces of Antique Instruments

Sina Shahbazmohamadi, Ph.D., in collaboration with the University of Connecticut, is revolutionizing the history of music with the replication of rare antique instrument parts using a 3-D printer.

Manhattan engineering professor Sina Shahbazmohamadi, Ph.D., has helped to discover a cutting-edge technology to replicate rare parts of antique instruments and bring back the sweet sounds they once made.

With no prior exposure to music, Shahbazmohamadi used his mechanical engineering skills and teamed up with Robert Howe, M.D., an endocrinologist and doctorate student in music history and theory at the University of Connecticut (UConn), and his adviser, Richard Bass, Ph.D., professor of music theory at UConn, to make history.

“Our research is an important aspect of a longstanding effort among scholars in music history and performance to define and recreate the sounds of music composed and performed before the existence of audio recording technology,” Bass says.

Mouthpieces, the sound-generating apparatus of antique instruments, are rarely preserved. Studying these pieces generally requires taking them apart, which can sometimes destroy them.

But by first utilizing high-resolution X-ray tomography (3-D printing) to study the inside of wind instruments, Howe and Bass were able to analyze their structure without damage. The instruments included two 18th-century horn curved English horns, a recorder made in 1770, and a tenor saxophone constructed in 1866 by the instrument’s inventor and namesake Adolphe Sax.

In 2013, Howe and Bass first connected with Shahbazmohamadi, then the director of imaging at UConn’s Center for Clean Energy and Engineering (C2E2), and a UConn alumnus of the doctorate and master’s programs.

This opportunity was Shahbazmohamadai’s first experience conducting research in music, and his first musical lesson with Howe and Bass.

“I suggested to 3-D print the mouthpieces rather than give the scans to an instrument maker to make it for us,” Shahbazmohamadi says. “Therefore, we will have a more robust manufacturing process.”

Discovering how to replicate antique instruments

The first step in the process was to develop an algorithm to be able to scan wood and metal simultaneously. Since the mouthpieces, foot joints and reeds were too large to scan in one imaging session, Shahbazmohamadi developed an image processing procedure on the computer to stitch multiple scans together.

The next step for him was to convert the large digital file into a computer aided design (CAD) file, and ultimately import the files into the 3-D printer at Manhattan College.

“The software used to gather the scans and generate a 3-D object is a highly demanding program requiring super computing power,” says Mario Medina, a Manhattan College master’s student majoring in mechanical engineering and graduate assistant of Shahbazmohamadi’s.

Howe’s original idea was to image the pieces for numbers and measurements, and have a craftsman produce an artisan copy that could cost thousands of dollars. But Shahbazmohamadi was certain that 3-D printing would offer a better solution.

The computer technology and micro-computed tomography offers the capability to rectify defects in the original and also create new versions of the saxophone mouthpieces, foot joints and reeds.

“Our work shows that one can measure and duplicate small antique wind parts without using tools or touching the specimen, thus removing the potential for damage,” Howe says. “Simultaneously, we get more accurate and precise data than is obtained by traditional craftsmanship methods.”

Shahbazmohamadi’s research is also utilized as a learning tool within the Mechanical Engineering department at Manhattan. Students receive exposure to the 3-D printing industry by designing and printing key chains.

“When we teach our students now, we can take them to the 3-D printers and show them we have it and this research is being done,” Shahbazmohamadi says. “I am talking about and showing the 3-D images in my classes and they can see the real-life applications of what they are learning. I think it is huge and creates motivation.”

Next Steps in 3-D Printing

The next phase for Shahbazmohamadi’s collaborative research will be 3-D printing and duplicating not just mouthpieces and parts of instruments, but actual instruments.

“We have some original Adolphe Sax saxophones because they are not destroyed and are still available, but they do not have any mouthpieces and the new ones do not fit in there,” Shahbazmohamadi says. “We have the tenor mouthpiece, but we are scaling it up and down to get the soprano, baritone and alto.”

Shahbazmohamadi recently submitted a proposal for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program grant to grow his research at Manhattan College, and facilitate other research ventures on campus. The grant proposes that the College acquire a three-ton high-resolution X-ray microscope to scan larger 3-D structures and materials. The grant will consist of multiple interdisciplinary research projects from the Visual and Performing Arts, Biology, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering departments, and Bass and Howe will stay on as collaborators for the music portion.

In late 2014, the trio’s findings were published in the Early Music academic journal and they presented at conferences in Brussels, Belgium; Cremona, Italy; Cambridge, Mass.; and New York.

“For the first time, it will become possible for companies to manufacture accurate replicas of antique instruments in large numbers,” Bass says. “That will make them accessible to more musicians, likely generating increased interest in playing music from the past the way it would have sounded in its own time.”

Photo credit (including homepage photo): Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

Video credit: UConn

MC Staff