The Mythical 32-Pound ‘Subcontrabassoon’ Is Now a Real Musical Instrument

Richard Bobo’s subcontrabassoon weighs 32 pounds and is taller than most adults.
Courtesy Richard Bobo

A musician has created a never-before attempted woodwind instrument that produces bone-rattling low notes and stands taller than the average adult: the subcontrabassoon.

When Richard Bobo was learning to play the bassoon in 8th grade, he read about a mythical instrument called the subcontrabassoon in a Guinness Book of World Records, made by a 19th century musician. It would be able to produce sounds similar to that of a large pipe organ, at two octaves below the regular bassoon, and one octave below the contrabassoon. Prototyping such an instrument had never been attempted before.

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It turned out that the Guinness Book of World Records was wrong, he said, and such an instrument didn’t actually exist. “However, just because a true subcontrabassoon didn't exist historically did not mean it could not exist,” Bobo told Motherboard. “As I began my career as a professional contrabassoonist (with a tangent as a machinist/CAD designer at my dad's shop), I held out hope that someone would come along and make this myth real. Eventually, I realized that no one else was rushing at the opportunity, and that my background might make me the best (or, at least, most willing) choice.” 

Bobo presented his creation at the International Double Reed Society in Boulder, Colorado in July. It weighs almost 32 pounds (not including metal keywork) and stands at around six feet tall—even taller depending on how the player needs to adjust the endpin for their own height. Wood is lighter than plastic, but he made this prototype using a 3D-printer and ABS plastic, with a support frame of welded stainless steel.

3D printing pieces of an instrument of this size and complexity is a feat in itself. Bobo’s Prusa MK3S printer limits prints to 200mm, this meant that the initial prototype was made of printed pieces that composed the subcontrabassoon’s multiple segments, which he then bonded together. The bonding process wasn’t robust enough for Bobo, however, so he designed his own custom 3D printer, a 200x200x600mm modification of the RatRig Vcore 3.

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“With this, I am able to make the majority of the pieces for the next prototype in one solid piece, with no need for bonding,” Bobo said. He’s also switching to ASA plastic that’s less susceptible to warping and UV rays (just in case he needs to drag this thing outside for a plein air concert) and plans to switch to an aluminum frame to cut down on the weight. 

Bobo’s big bassoon won’t be stuck in a hypothetical setting for long. In January—if all goes according to plan with further prototyping—the subcontrabassoon will be used in a live performance of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas. “The part is small,” Bobo said, “but if everything works out it will be the live premiere of an instrument that was, until just a few years ago, firmly in the realm of unicorns or the philosopher's stone.”

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Beyond that, he’s trying to keep an open mind about where the project will go. “Maybe there will come a day when every serious symphony orchestra has a subcontrabassoon on hand, and maybe I'll even live to see it,” Bobo said. “But that's a high bar; even 180 years after its invention, the saxophone is not yet a regular member of the orchestra. But perhaps, like the saxophone, the subcontrabassoon will find a niche in other genres of music. Perhaps, like the contrabass clarinet and contrabass flute, it will have a home in chamber music written for instruments of the same family.”