Digital models and acoustic instruments have traditionally been studies in contrast. And instrument making has by definition been a craft and an art. But what if making an acoustic instrument was a matter of hitting “print”?

That’s the question asked by MIT Media Lab researcher Amit Zoran. Using the Objet Geometries Connex500 3D printer, one capable of on-the-fly use of multiple materials, he made a flute in 15 hours. The results are surprisingly good for a first attempt. The instrument is playable, but Amit plans additional iteration and improvement. (Be sure to watch through the video for some feedback on the details from flutist Seth Hunter.)

Initially, it’s hard to hear about a 3D printer spitting out a flute from a digital model and not worry a bit about what happens to craft and skill. But that may miss the point. For one, the more access we have to 3D printers, the more we may appreciate the subtleties of human fabrication that these printers can’t reproduce – in case decades of (often inferior) mass production haven’t done that for you already.

Designs like this multi-pipe trumpet, featured in Amit’s video, are imaginary for now. But the 3D printer could make them a reality more quickly, by enabling rapid prototyping and new fabrication techniques.

Moreover, the 3D printer could represent new potential for instrumental research. Acoustic instrument design hasn’t produced a popular instrument, arguably, in over a century. Part of the problem is that it’s too difficult to prototype ideas. Being able to rapidly prototype a lot of variations inexpensively could mean wild, new instruments (see the fanciful multi-pipes trumpet Amit proposes), new designs that can’t be fabricated by hand, as well as new revelations about historical designs. (Imagine being able to produce a dozen variations of a prehistoric flute, for instance, and be able to try them out with a musician.) Those prototypes might, in turn, ultimately be fabricated by a skilled artisan after perfecting the basics of the design.

I’ve sent some questions to Amit to hear more about his research, but let us know if you have questions for him or thoughts about the project. In the meantime, some great coverage from NPR’s Renee Montagne and Engadget’s Sean Hollister, who each beat us to the story:

3D printed concert flute rapidly prototypes sound (video) [Engadget]

3D Printer Produces Working Flute [NPR Morning Edition / Audio]

You can also visit Amit’s own site, which includes designs for everything from sci-fi motorbikes to re-imagined acoustic guitars:

Amit Zoran homepage at MIT