On Sunday, January 6, I got up before dawn to go record the implosion of a parking garage in the west campus neighborhood of Austin, Texas.
This was not my first building demolition recording. In 2000, I recorded the implosion of the Kingdome in Seattle; in 2018, I recorded the implosion of Ashbel Smith Hall in downtown Austin. That eighteen-year gap shows how often these opportunities come up – or at least appear on my radar.
Not getting to do such events regularly means that any specific skills and procedures get rusty, if they are even ever fully developed. Since you really only get one shot to record a building implosion, I’m going to try to document those skills and procedures, for your reference and mine.
1. Prepare. Building implosions usually happen early in the AM, so don’t count on packing that day. Set two hours aside to prepare and pack on the day before.
• Set up your rig and test it: every stand, every adapter, and test every extra cable. You need to be 100% sure you have everything.
• Charge your batteries and pack backups.
• Make sure you have freshly formatted media to record onto, and test recording onto it.
• Bring as many mics as you have inputs for. My default pick is a stereo pair of omni small diaphragm condensers. A third might be a dynamic mic that does well with lows like an RE27; a pair of PZMs might be good for a neutral representation of the space too.
• Pack a backpack with whatever else you may need; especially weather-appropriate clothing, snacks, and maybe a paperback book, should your setup go well.
• I’m usually all about staying hydrated but in this situation I’d recommend not bringing too much water. Tearing down and packing up just because you have to urinate is not fun or a good use of time.
• Pack some big garbage bags. Implosions tend to kick up a lot of dust and your equipment should not be exposed to such things. They are also good for improvising rain covers for your gear.
• On that note, at least bring a bandanna and goggles for the dust. You are better off with a painter’s mask, or better yet a respirator.
• Bring an SPL meter if you have one; it’s always interesting to see how loud things actually are.
• Make sure you can carry all your gear yourself!
• Familiarize yourself with the location – ideally in person, but a digital map will be adequate. Check the local police department site to get an idea of how close you can get. Pick a site to record from if you can.
• Get up early, and get there early. I personally like to be able to start setting up an hour before. If I have everything I need with me, I should be able to work around any tech issues.
• If you haven’t already, pick a site. I try to pick a spot far away from people, so I just record the implosion, not a lot of people cheering. Being out of the line of sight is very helpful for avoiding people. I really like the idea of being three or four blocks away. At that distance you should still be able to catch the initial impact, but also get the long tail of reverberation. Also consider wind – you want wind to be blowing from you toward the implosion site, not the other way round. This will reduce your debris exposure.
• If there are policemen or security personnel around, you should say hi and let them know what you are doing, to avoid potential hassle.
• Set your levels. This is a terrifying gamble, as there are no do-overs for a building implosion. If you have a pad or limiter, use it, but don’t count on it to prevent clipping. My last implosion I set levels at about 20%; my limiter kicked in but it didn’t clip. If I could do it again I’d have gone down to 10%. I didn’t use a high-pass filter; for me the whole point of recording a building implosion is to get that low thump.
• Start recording ten minutes beforehand. For safety, these things never start early, but do you want to be the one to miss it the one time it does?
• It’s tempting to hang out and gloat about how awesome the implosion was, but debris travels fast. Put your respirator and goggles on, pack your gear quickly, stow it in garbage bags, and get out of there.
• Be prepared to vacuum your gear when you get home, and wash all your clothes.
I hope that this is useful. If you hear of any upcoming implosions, let me know!
Alex Keller is an audio artist, sound designer, curator and teacher based in Austin, Texas. His work is in the media of performance, installation, and recorded release, and reflects his interests in architecture, language, abstraction and music. More on his work at alexkeller.net