The music makers
Is it real or is it think[box]? When it comes to violins, two young alumni want to make it hard to guess.
By Robert L. Smith
Maxwell Morgan, a luthier in Cleveland Heights, helps Matt Canel test one of his 3D printed violins.
A meticulous young man in a leather apron pulled a bow across the strings of a candycolored, plastic violin. A surprisingly deep, resonant sound filled his workshop. Standing nearby, Matt Canel ’20, MS ’21, and Ben Kaufman ’12, MEM ’13, waited expectantly. They hoped to begin soon mass producing this instrument, which they designed for children. Their violin is cheaper and sturdier than a traditional wooden model but sounds, they think, like the real McCoy.
They were awaiting the opinion of Maxwell Morgan, a luthier, or craftsman who builds and restores stringed instruments. Morgan had never seen a plastic violin before the two Case alumni walked into his Cleveland Heights shop two years ago.
“These are simply way better than when you guys first approached me,” he finally said. “You’re on point.”
Still, he saw an issue with tuning nuts in the neck. He recommended subtle adjustments. Canel nodded and smiled. They were getting close.
A mechanical engineer with a theater background, Canel is the founder and CEO of 3D Music. The company sprang from his master’s thesis, which entailed creating a plastic violin on 3D printers in Sears think[box], the university’s maker space.
More than 100 iterations later, he’s still tinkering with a formula he thinks could lead to far more children playing a prized instrument — or at least giving it a try. Because his violins sound pretty good. And that may be good enough to get started.
“We’re dropping the cost barrier,” Canel said, describing how he plans to disrupt the market. “That means that more people could have the chance to learn an instrument. And I think that could have a big impact.”
The violin is probably the best-known musical instrument in the world. Its lush sound has captivated audiences for centuries. But it’s also a fragile and expensive work of art. Concert-level violins can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even the banged-up violin in the school band room is probably worth several thousand dollars.
Children generally get started on smaller, quarter-scale violins — about half the size of a full-scale model. These are cheaper and easier to handle than a concert violin, but still several hundred dollars and highly breakable.
Because of the expense, many music students never come to own their own instruments — and many children never get started.
Canel and Kaufman aim to change that. Their hard plastic, quarter-scale violins sell for $200, or about half the cost of a popular wooden beginner model. Meanwhile, it’s kid friendly in other ways.
“Our strongest selling point is, we’re droppable,” said Kaufman, the company co-founder and business development manager. 3D Music violins come apart and snap back together, he noted. They also come in fun colors, like banana yellow and candy apple red.
“If your kid is on the fence (about playing a violin) pick a color,” said Kaufman, a computer engineer by trade. “Our sound quality is significantly better than a traditional wooden violin at our price point.”
The project began several years ago, when Canel was an undergraduate student worker at Sears think[box]. He became an expert on its array of 3D printers — machines that can be programmed to print three-dimensional objects. He played cello in middle school but could never afford his own. Now he wondered, could he print one?
He decided to start with a child’s violin, which proved challenge enough. The quest became his thesis and, in 2020, his company. Kaufman soon joined him and they now have a luthier to consult and two design patents pending.
In January, Canel and Kaufman took several of their violins to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where they exhibited alongside other innovators from Case Western Reserve. That appearance attracted media attention, which continued through the winter.
On a recent afternoon, a producer from WCPN Ideastream, the public radio station in Cleveland, visited them in their $375-a-month production space on the 7th floor of Sears think[box]. In a work bay not much larger than an office cubicle, four 3D printers whirred away, slowly printing violins. Jean-Marie Papoi filmed and taped as Canel drew a bow across a freshly printed model, playing scales.
The next week, they made their first sale, to a customer from Colorado who ordered off their website: www.3dmusic.org/.
“Eventually, I would like to print a cello,” Canel mused. “That’s a $45,000 instrument. Nothing is out of the question.”
First, though, he hopes to put affordable violins into the hands of beginners. He considers his company to be in the “rapid prototyping phase,” making small adjustments each day, working toward mass appeal.
“We’ve learned this does work,” he said. And violinists are not the only young musicians needing practice. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
3D Music violins
Printing a violin takes 3D Music about two days.
Ben Kaufman tests a violin at Sears think[box] as a producer for WCPN-Ideastream tapes a radio show and Matt Canel looks on.
Courtesy of Michael Baker International