Hi-Tech meets Trad-Tech: Super Seung Resonators

I worked with Dr. Larry Wilen at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design to mill the resonators I designed for the Super Seung; a re-imagination of the traditional northern Thai guitar.. We used the large ShopBot to cut the 4 chambers into a solid chunk of wood. I used the laser cutter to design the top panel made from materials like acrylic, wood (walnut and birch) and cardboard.

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The most critical limitation of this design is the relatively small size of the resonators.

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The original design of seungs, guitars and ukeleles have all the strings attached to one large body. This means the thinnest to the thickest strings all transfer their vibrations to a large resonating body with a large surface area.

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When you split the resonator into smaller chambers, you decrease the amount of surface area available to each string for vibration. Amit Zoran originally factored this into his design by making the chambers for the lowest E string to be much larger than the corresponding chamber for highest E string.

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Likewise, each of the chambers in the Super Seung have a surface corresponding to the frequency range of the string it is attached to.

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That doesn’t solve the problem that both Amit and my design have, the fact that these small resonators must produce a loud and full sound on par with a single chamber. Although an efficient combination of body and plate may help compensate this unwanted side-effect, only a working a prototype can verify this. The next step is to produce the frame only – two ways to go about it. Find another large chunk of wood and chop it down by hand, or mill the entire design.

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Lastly, there is also the problem of tuning. Since I went with linearly distributed bridges, this in turn affects the sounding frequency of the open strings. For a ukelele, one could smartly position the bridges so that the each fret produces the right note. Alternative tunings is never a problem, guitarists do it all the time with Drop D and Drop C tunings and it takes a short time to learn the new chord shapes. But in reality, due to the displacement of bridges, the fretted notes will never be in tune, since the frequency is a function of the ratio of the total string length. This is why all fretted string instruments have their strings the equal length, but just different thicknesses. The displaced bridges was a compromise to realize the modular design, but greatly affects the musical playability of the instrument. Aye, there’s the rub.

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Nonetheless, the project has put me in the direction of “Hi-Tech meets Trad-Tech” – using STEM disciplines to re-engineer traditional technologies. I refrain from saying Low-tech because the traditional craftsmanship of all cultures is not low tech, in fact, it were people like woodworkers and blacksmiths who were the most “Hi-tech” of the time.

“Technology”, at its root, comes from the Greek techne, which is about invent- ing “better ways of doing things”. It were the swordsmiths who invented “the better way” of alloying metal and the woodworkers who invented the “the better way” of securing wood together. Nowadays, the physical sciences and engineering have taken over “the better way” of doing things. I’m particularly interested with ASEAN technology in this sense because I believe the integration of Science, Engineering and Art (SEA) with local expertise in Southeast Asia (SEA) can produce exciting innovations like the Super Seung, a combination I call [SEA]2. In particular, this junction of disciplines can enhance the diversity of ASEAN cultures and re-invigorate interest in local traditions, especially among the youth. It is my life-long dream to establish a research and educational institute in ASEAN dedicated to the [SEA]2 vision.

Innovation should never leave behind the histories and cultures that inspired them.

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