Building A Better Instrument

Design instructor Marty Jacobson stresses the human component, whether it’s mandolins or medical devices


Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience

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Design instructor Marty Jacobson stresses the human component, whether it’s mandolins or medical devices

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Design instructor Marty Jacobson stresses the human component, whether it’s mandolins or medical devices

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Marty Jacobson picks the strings of an instrument that he designed and made. Rich, new sounds resonate in his office, evoking the outdoors – an Appalachian valley or green, rolling Irish hills.


“Sounds just like a mandolin,” says a satisfied Jacobson, design instructor and machine shop manager for the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, and a sought-after luthier in his spare time – two roles that are not very different.


“I tell my students that what I’m doing making instruments is exactly the same thing they’re doing in designing a medical device,” Jacobson says. “The recipe for good design is the same: It’s about understanding the problem, understanding the users and their needs, then taking the time to go through each step. It’s an iterative, cyclical process.”


It’s something that was pounded into him every day when he was a student at Georgia Tech studying industrial design, this step-by-step concept. And it’s something he drives home with his students in the Coulter Department, many of whom will be putting their design skills on display in the spring semester version of the Capstone Design Expo, Tuesday night in McCamish Pavilion.


The Expo is a showcase of Georgia Tech’s graduating seniors as they present innovations created during the Capstone Design Course. Students work in teams to design, build, and test prototypes with real world applications, which makes Jacobson particularly popular.


“Almost every day I get questions from Capstone teams and I tell them, ‘you know what, you should go ask Marty.’ It’s because the guy knows everything. He’s got so much experience,” says James Rains, professor of practice and director of BME Capstone. “He’s skilled in so many areas. Marty is an eclectic guy.”


In the weeks leading up to the Expo, Jacobson and fellow design instructor Raja Schaar are typically busy helping student teams reach the finish line.


“Raja and I are in the unique position of having offices right near the machine shop, so when students have a question, they come on in,” Jacobson says. “It could be anything from how to make something easier for the user to understand, or how to design a poster, or how to estimate the production cost, and a ton of other considerations, big and small.”


As Jacobson often says, they’re similar to his considerations when working on an instrument for a client. 


“You can do all of the calculations you want and have a pretty good sense of what to expect in the final mechanism,” he says. “Especially if we’re talking about a medical device, until you prototype it, until it comes in contact with the human body, there are almost an infinite number of things that you don’t know about. And the only way you’ll know is to actually build it.”


But whether you’re building a screening tool for malnutrition (like BME Capstone team NutriMeasure has done) or a high-end, custom-designed mandolin (Jacobson Acoustic Instruments start at $3,000), it begins with smart planning, something Jacobson has learned the hard way.


“You can waste a hundred bucks in wood very quickly by not planning,” says Jacobson, who relies on suppliers he has known since childhood. The wood – he uses maple, spruce, walnut, rosewood, redwood – arrives in chunks, or billets. Even in its rough form, sometimes covered with mud and bugs, the wood is beautiful to Jacobson.


“I start getting excited when it arrives, trying to figure out what kind of sound each piece of wood is going to give me, then match that with a customer’s needs,” Jacobson says. “These are musical tools, right? So then my design process – the part I enjoy the most – starts. I want to know what style of music the customer plays, what kinds of rooms they play in, the kind of tone they like in a recording. We have to figure out how to get this personality into the instrument, and that helps me understand the engineering parameters.”


Jacobson has sold about 35 of his mandolins over the past six years, every one of them different. He built his own CNC (computerized numerical control) machine from scratch, to quickly produce parts, based on CAD (computer-aided design) software that he devised. He’s also designed a modular guitar platform that he plans to prototype soon


For each of his thoroughly unique mandolins, he puts significant creative thought into structural design and aesthetic elements. The completed instruments look like works of art, and having also been a professional photographer, Jacobson gets the importance of how something looks.


“A fellow luthier told me, ‘people hear with their eyes first,’” Jacobson says. “What he means is, instruments grab people visually. It’s the way our brains work. If something looks attractive, you think it sounds good.”


Nonetheless, Jacobson places much more importance on tone and function than aesthetics.


“Every piece of the instrument, every shape and line and dimension, has a manufacturing purpose behind it,” he says. “All of my instruments have some element of ergonomics instilled in them. It’s from my industrial design background. I’m always thinking of how to make them feel better or work better, how to make them more comfortable or sit better in the player’s hands.”


It always comes back to the end-user, whether it’s a musician who wants a better mandolin, or a clinician who needs a better tool for detecting respiratory infections in children (such as the device BME Team Pneu is showcasing at the Expo).


“What we teach students is really human centered,” Jacobson says. “We’re trying to make things for people.”


BME Capstone Design Expo Teams

Jacobson Acoustic Instruments


Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience


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Wallace H. Coulter Dept. of Biomedical Engineering

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luthier, mandolins, marty jacobson
  • Created By: Jerry Grillo
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Apr 25, 2016 - 8:01am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:21pm