Friday, 31 January 2014

The Derby-versary?

For many of us finding roller derby was one of those life changing moments, and so we like to celebrate it and tell the world "HEY WORLD I'VE BEEN INTO DERBY FOR THIS LONG!".  Like other anniversaries everyone will judge "The Day" in a different way, was it the first time you met(heard about derby), the first date(first time you saw derby live), your first kiss(first time you participated at a bout), or you know, the first *ahem*...(The first time you passed min skills/bouted/reffed a bout).

Just like with other relationships there is no normal or correct answer to this question.

For me I count my derby-versary as the first time I participated in a bout.  I could count my first experiences as a spectator but what if I never got involved with the sport in any capacity other than as a casual fan(That was never going to happen...).

My first experience of being involved in derby as a participant was 11th April 2010 when I was an NSO for ARRG's home event Hadrian's Brawl, (which was also the 1st time I saw Newcastle Roller Girls play).  I had been involved in derby a little bit longer than that though as we had sat in on an ARRG training session and spent a while chatting to some of the refs about the sport a few months before that(actually before I'd even seen a live bout) and I was already learning the rules ready to announce my first bout.

So,  what do you count at your anniversary of derby?  First bout you saw?  the day you joined your 1st league, or the first bout you participated in?

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Monday, 4 November 2013

Why is an Announcer like a Birdwatcher?

Or an Anti-Aircraft Gunner?

I was announcing a bout yesterday with Holly Sheet and afterwards she said she was amazed/impressed at how I was able to pick up everything that was going on track including all the players.  I started explaining that once you've memorised the players, that's most of the work done and so you can concentrate on the action of the jam rather than grasping to recall/read a players name and number. But how do you memorise 28 players easily?

I now need to go into a little story about me growing up, so grab a seat by the log fire and when you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin...

When I was about 6 years old I remember my granddad pointing out birds in the garden and naming them.  He started teaching me the differences between the birds we'd see and I soon learned to recognise them.  A few years later I started bird watching with a friend and we'd wander round the countryside with our binoculars trying to get a glimpse of a rare hawk or warbler. We would spend hours reading the RSPB bird guides and all the info contained therein to help us identify what we saw in the field.
My other passion at the time was based around all things military, and especially model airplanes. This led onto me joining the Air Cadets at age 12 where I learned a range of useful skills(field tracheotomy anyone?) and got very good at aircraft recognition - the skill of identifying a plane from just a silhouette.

So why is this fuzzy memory of my distant past relevant. Well it seems that the skills used in both birdwatching and aircraft recognition can be used in announcing.  Birdwatchers can catch a glimpse of a bird and tell you instantly what it is, almost as a reflex. They mentally pull together details of how the bird flies, any distinguishing markings, the general size and shape, and that triggers the memory of which bird matches all of those criteria.

Now, I want you all to be adults about this next bit.  No sniggering.

In the world of bird watching and aircraft recognition this is called Jizz, sometimes spelled Gis or Giss.  There are many explanations behind this name but the main one that a lot of people hold to is that it is derived from early in the 20th century, but was widely used throughout WW2 by Anti aircraft gunners and pilots and was short for General Impression of Shape and Size(

What does it mean to me as an announcer?
The whole point of Giss is that it allows you to quickly recognise something based on a single or a combined set of characteristics. The last couple of times I've done streaming commentary the broadcast table has been situated on turn 1 facing down the straight towards the pivot/jammer line. This means that you often don't get to see any of the players numbers until the whole pack is on or around turn 1. I've found that if I spend time watching the skaters when they are warming up I can associate a number of things with that skater like their height, build, skating stance, sock colour, helmet colour, sleeves/no sleeves/vest, etc.

If I have put the time in then I can recall a skaters name, without really thinking about it and sometimes just with a quick glance at them in the middle of the pack.   This makes the call flow better and also helps to inform the audience.  I hear so many announcers that will only ever say the name of the jammer when the jam is in progress, but can't tell you which blocker has just flattened them.

How to build up the Skills?
Unfortunately, I don't have the magic answer to this, but here are the steps that work for me:
1) Handwrite the roster. This helps to link the names and numbers in my head.
2) Position yourself trackside while the teams are warming up. Stand where you'll be when calling the bout.
3) As the skaters go round, watch them, read off their number and then read their name off the roster/programme out loud. I normally say things like "247, L'il Joker, Gold Helmet, white skates, red bandanna tied to kneepad".  Doing this I am building visual associations with the name and number.
4) Repeat step 3, until you get to the point where you stop needing to read their shirt numbers, or look at the roster.

While you are doing this try to  call out players names and numbers when they are facing you, or are on the other side of the track.

You should get to the point where you can squint(so that you see a blurrr version of the skater) and you can call them based on the way they skate, or their distinguishing features.

But remember, what works for me may not work for you and you may need to find out the best way to build associations in your memory.  There're are probably 1000's of books out there about mental agility and how to build memory etc, so get Googling or if anyone can recommend any, comment below.

And Finally
I have to give a shout out to Bulldog who initially taught me the importance of watching the teams warm up as a way to learn the skaters.

Next Up:  How to bring down a casino through memory based card systems...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

How to Make an Announcer Love Your League Part 2

In my previous article I talked about providing the announcer with the relevant information they need to do their job effectively.

In this one I'm going to talk about what you need to provide to let them be heard, or to put it another way,  what sound equipment should you have and where should it be.

If your league is lucky then you will know an awesome sound engineer that will rock up to a bout with everything they need to make it sound perfect. If however, like most you don't here is a quick and dirty guide to what's what.

The normal setup of bout sound is similar to this:

Mics and a laptop connected to a mixer, which is fed into an amplifier and then out into the monitors.

Watch us Wreck the Mic!
The microphone.  The weapon of choice of the announcer. There are many different types of microphone on the market for an even greater range of purposes.  For your announcers you want a decent vocal mic, and while you're on make it wireless.

Why Wireless?
Simple,  announcers need to be able to move around and having an announcer restricted by a cabled mic doesn't make sense.

Wireless mics can be picked up fairly cheaply now(I paid about £100 for a set 3 years ago, which came with 2 mics and the receiver all in a nice hard case).

If you are using a couple of mics(which aren't part of the same set) then you need to make sure that they aren't on the same frequency and they will interfere with each other. This goes for other people within range of your receiver.  I've been at a bout before where the headset mic used by an aerobics instructor next door was picked up on the bout setup, rendering one of the microphones useless for the day.

Talking of frequencies, if you are in UK you may not know that there was a switch-over of channels in 2012 and so some older microphone setups cannot be used now.  Something to bear in mind if you have an older setup or you're considering buying second hand gear.

The only downside I have found with wireless mics is that they do consume a lot of batteries(well mine do anyway).

So, you have some microphones now.  What's next?

The Mixing Desk
A mixing desk allows you to connect all of your sound devices into separate channels and then set the levels to give you a balanced output.

You can buy small 4 channel mixing desks for around £100 and this is all you need really. My wireless mic setup allows me to have a separate channel for each mic, then I need 1 for the laptop, and I have 1 spare for an iPod to be plugged into as a backup.

It is a good idea to have someone manning the mixing desk, as the sound levels will need to be adjusted as the noise levels in rise and fall.

The Mixing Desk then outputs into an Amplifier or PA.  The amplifier is the bit that takes the sound from the mixing desk, and powers it up so that it can be fed into the monitors(speakers) and then people can hear it.  P.A.'s come in all shapes and sizes and price ranges.

The amplifier will then be connected into a number of monitors.

I like Tall Speakers, I like Small Speakers...

There is a phenomenal range of monitors available ranging in powered or unpowered, size, output power, monitors to be put on stands or floor monitors(wedges).

What you get is very dependant on your venue, but at the very least you should have 2 monitors for each side of the crowd.  So, if you have all of your crowd on one side of the venue, you should have 1 monitor at either side facing them.

Floor monitors are the best as they don't obscure the view of the track.

Ideally you want to face your monitors at the crowd, as any extra sound being pumped across the track can cause problems with the players and referees, not hearing whistles or shouts.

Make sure that you tape all of your cables down.

At the Newcastle Roller Girls/Tyne and Fear home venue, we have a coupe of sections of bleachers on the floor and then a balcony at a right angle to that so we have a couple of floor monitors for the bleachers and then we run a couple of monitors up onto the balcony.  All of these face away from the track.

If Music is the Food of Derby...
The only other bit that needs to be connected to all of this is your music.
I'll not go into playlists here as that is a subject for a whole blog by itself.

You'll need a device for playing music from.  Something with a standard headphone jack will do.  I would recommend a laptop as a first choice over an mp3 player as the laptop is a bit more flexible in terms of selecting music and skipping over tracks.

I usually have a setup where I have a couple of playlists on the laptop, for the bout itself and then I have an ipod with backups of the playlists on.  The Ipod also has any skate-out songs on it, so that the laptop can be simply paused while the skate-outs happen to avoid the juggling of songs.

If you are going from a laptop/mp3 player straight into a mixing desk then you will need a converter which will take the headphone jack to a pair of 1/4" jacks for stereo output.

Getting Your Levels
Sports halls are not designed with acoustics in mind and so it will take a bit of adjusting to get the sound levels right.  Ideally you should be able to hear the announcer wherever you are in the venue, but it shouldn't be overpowering.  Do a sound check before the venue fills up and make sure you know the limits of where you can be heard and where your mics will work.  Then when the venue fills with people be prepared to adjust the levels again as the sound is absorbed by the bodies.

In the next thrilling instalment I'll be looking at playlists for derby.  What's your favourite song to play to?  What amps you up the most on track?  Do you even notice the music?

Let me know by leaving a comment below or on

Friday, 8 February 2013

How to Make an Announcer Love Your League Part 1

I have already spoken a few times about how you can be a great announcer, but I wan't to talk a bit about how leagues can help to keep your announcing great.

One of the steps in my Announcing 101 guide refers to preparation.  That's right folks, you can't often expect to turn up on the day and wing it.  Doing this can lead to problems or lots of "And that is number James!" style comments while you fumble for the programme page or squint to read the name from a shirt as they disappear at 100mph.

So, how can you as a host league prepare announcers for your bouts?  Simple, make up an announcer pack.

Announcer pack you say Sven.  That sounds funky, what is it?

The announcer pack is all the info that an announcer will need to hand on the day.  This includes but is not limited to:

Player rosters - Number, Name and if it is pronounced a certain way the phonetic spelling of it.  This is especially important if there is a clever pun hidden away there. Yes, we know that rosters change but it is easier to make a couple of changes on the morning of the bout then trying to learn an entire team(unless you're Bulldog who can memorise an entire tournament roster it seems...).

Player/Team Facts - Have you played this opponent before?  Is this a players first/last game for this team?  Has a player won an award recently?  The sort of things that announcers use to fill in moments of silence, or to stop the play by play becoming samey. Obviously don't give away big game changing tactical stuff, like "skater x has recently come back from knee surgery and is worried about falling on that side"...

Running order - Timings, Timings, Timings.  When do the bouts start? How long is Half Time?  Who/what is the half time entertainment?  Who is skating out first?  If it is a tournament structure, what is the format?

Sponsor messages - Don't just hand us a programme.  Don't just give us a list of names.  For any sponsor messages you should be providing them as the following example:

Sponsor Name:  Rice Pudding World
Sponsor Level: Whole event
Sponsor Details:  Rice Pudding World is the home of rice pudding and has tirelessly gathered historical samples from all over Wiltshire.
Sponsor Messages:  "Rice Pudding World. Come for the History, Stay for the Rice Pudding", "Rice Pudding World. MMMMM Rice Pudding".

Some leagues/events will prioritise sponsors or assign a frequency to them.  If you're one of these then specify it.  Remember to include any charity messages in the sponsor details.  Remember that the sponsors will help you with this.  It's their message that you're spreading afterall and the last thing you want is an announcer crushing a sponsorship deal you've spent ages building, just because they say the wrong thing at the wrong time*.

Raffle Details - We need to know a few key things here:
Where can people buy the tickets?
How much are they?
What are the prizes?
When will it be drawn/announced?

List of Vendors/Stalls - If you have merch for sale or other vendors present, then give a list to the announcers.  The can give them a shout out as the event progresses.

Other announcements - We also need to know the details of anything else to be announced throughout the event. Is there an afterparty and where is it? When is the next home bout?

When should you be getting the info to the announcers?
I like to see the rosters at least couple of days in advance of a double header.  For a bigger event I prefer the rosters a bit further in advance.  For Track Queens: Battle Royal in Berlin which was a 10 team tournament we had all of the rosters 2 weeks in advance which was a perfect amount of time to be able to get familiar with the teams.

Other information can be the day before or even on the day of the event as long as it is nicely formatted and easily readable.  The amount of times I have found myself at a bout juggling scraps of paper with various bits of info scrawled on them doesn't bear thinking about.

You should also make sure that on the day the announcers know who to go to if they need information.

I will finish off by saying that all of the above does not absolve the announcer the responsibility of doing a bit of homework.  There are tons of websites dedicated to tracking scores, or team rankings(although be sure to state which source you're using if you discuss rankings on the mic as they often differ).  When we arrived in Berlin for Track Queens, we were handed an amazing announcer pack, but because all of the announcers had also done homework we were able to compare some notes on the teams, players and their previous encounters and it gave us more ammo for the commentary.

*While I'm on the subject of Sponsor messages, A word to the announcers.  Have fun with the sponsor messages but don't go overboard.  Working Track Queens we had 3 x 10 hours days of announcing and a list of sponsors to mention. The last thing we wanted was for the messages to start sounding laboured and dull, and so we would try and segue into them in interesting ways. The important part is to make sure that you never make fun of the sponsors themselves as this can lead to unhappy people.

Monday, 14 January 2013

I'm a Sur5or

Yesterday I had the massive pleasure of announcing the UKRDA Sur5al tourney at Tattoo Freeze.

"What's Sur5al Sven?" I hear you ask.  Let me break it down for you as simply as I can:

The rules(in a nutshell)
The tournament features multiple teams
Each team has 5 players.
Each jam lasts the full 2 minutes.
Teams face off against each other in single jams 1 after the other, so for example Rainy City play Royal Windsor in the 1st Jam, then Kent Roller Girls play London Rockin' Rollers in the second jam, then Rainy city play Tiger Bay etc.  You get the idea.
The actual jam score doesn't really matter as long as you know which team won the jam, and which team got lead jammer.  You get 5 table points if you win, 2 table points for a score draw and a bonus table point if you get lead.
The team with the most table points at the end of all the rounds is the winner.
The penalty box resets and if a player fouls out, their team skate short.

Yesterday we had 14 teams, playing 15 x 7 jam heats.  In my opinion this was the perfect format for the event we were at.  There were a lot of non derby folk there who were at the venue to see some impressive tattooing, graffiti and awesome VW campers and I saw the same faces returning to the trackside.  With Sur5al there is no investment of time from the spectator where they have to make the decision to stay and watch the full 60 minutes of derby to see who wins or go do something else.  They can dip in when they want throughout the day and always be guaranteed at least 2 minutes of fast paced  derby.  There are no slow jams, no tactical call offs after 25 seconds and (hopefully) no long winded team or official time outs.

A couple of points I noted that I think could improve the format for the fans:

1 - It needs a proper scoreboard.  Other than being super attentive to the jam refs hands, or having announcers that can do maths there is no way to know what the jam score is as it's happening.  I guess this is because of the config overheads of the regular derby scoreboards. I know someone will knock one up soon or modify an existing one(maybe even me). Until then, it's often guess work.  Any volunteers for this should get in touch with UKRDA.
2 - It needs a visible league table. A large whiteboard with the team names, games played and points total is all that's required here.

As I say, these are really minor points, and do not diminish the enjoyment I or any of the spectators, players or officials took from the tournament and my hat goes off to all the organisers from UKRDA who made it happen.

I can't wait for the next one!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Looking Back at 2012

2012 has been a big year for derby in the UK. We've seen new leagues popping up all over the place, rankings and rating schemes helping to make games better for the spectators.  We've had series games, the 1st WFTDA sanctioned tournament in Europe and the 1st Men's European Championships which heralded the real rise of Men's Roller Derby in the UK.  We've had some of the USAs best skaters over for some games including a successful tour by New York Shock Exchange.  I consider myself extremely lucky to have been part of some of this, but here have been my derby highlights from 2012:

In January I became one of a handful of Announcers outside of the US to be certified by the AFTDA(Association of Flat Track Derby Announcers).  This was only possible for me due to Pelvis Costello who was willing to sit and endure a Skype session with me to run through the testing.  I also have to give a shout out to Dan Gliebitz as being the pioneer in this method of testing and went on to use his AFTDA certification by announcing at Eastern Regionals later on in the year.

Tyne and Fear hosted their first ever home bout with The Jakey Bites coming to Newcastle.  I donned the stripes for this one and got to head ref a lot of the Scottish refs that I started out learning from, such as 3 Majors and Brutally Frank.

Early in the year, I had a brief conversation with a familiar figure in the derby world named El Toupee and managed to give him the shove he needed to put on his Announcer pants.  Soon after he announced his first bout and very shortly was racking up some major mic time, and stealing my work!

July saw the 1st Men's European Championship(MERDC) with 7 teams from Europe converging on Birmingham for 2 days of hard skating.  Many of these teams hadn't faced each other properly before and so it was great to be there watching the rising stars develop.  Out of that weekend the nation fell in love with a certain Toulouse player, Mr Furieux and of course his rivalry with Southern Discomforts Reaper. This was also the first outing of my all gold suit which Cherry Fury now insists I wear if I'm announcing a bout that she is reffing.

In August I got to fulfill a non-derby related goal.  I used to do a bit of stand up and so performing at the Edinburgh Fringe is something that every performer wants.  Thanks to Auld Reekie Roller Girls I got to do this.  I was invited to announce their bout against Tiger Bay Brawlers and although I wasn't trying to make the audience roll in the aisles with laughter I think I still helped to entertain and inform.

Jump ahead now to November and I find myself in Berlin with some old and new faces, surrounded by the cream of Roller Derby in Europe, all set for Track Queens:Battle Royal. 3 days of top flight roller derby to decide who would be the best WFTDA team in Europe, and although the end result wasn't really a surprise the journey to get there proved to be a fantastic ride.  I earned my wings as a live stream announcer and I got to call some of the closest and most nail biting derby I have ever witnessed. A massive shout out goes to my fellow announcers(or Moderators as we're called in Germany), Lil Joker, Twisted Mister, El Toupee, Bulldog, Handsome Joe, Eurotrash and Bobby Babylon.  A brotherhood forged in our VIP lounge, and our love of sponsor slogans.  Taste the Apple!

I finished my year announcing for my home teams, The Canny Belters and Tyne and Fear and then being part of the ref crew officiating the last bout in the uk of 2012. I also think I claimed the penultimate minor penalty call, with the last ever minor of 2012 going to Dark Matter.

Normally when doing a roundup of the year, there is a point when the reviewer looks back and picks their top players and teams etc.  I'm not going to do this but I'll give my highlight bout of the year.

My highlight bout of the year has to be the 3rd/4th place showdown at Track Queens. ARRG versus Stockholm. After a weekend of close scores and switching game leads, this proved to be equally as thrilling.  I had the pleasure to be calling the game for WFTDA.TV and at times there was no point talking as the crowd noise levels rose to where you couldn't hear anything.

So, now all that's left is to say a massive thanks to everyone that played, reffed, NSO'd, Volunteered for, supported, cheered, cake-baked, filmed, photographed, and of course enjoyed any derby in 2012.  You all rock my tiny world.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Taking To The Bench

This past weekend saw the Newcastle Roller Girls A team, The Canny Belters travel to Edinburgh to take part in a scrim against the Auld Reekie Roller Girls.  We'd been invited to go up to help the Twisted Thistles prepare for their upcoming trip to the Track Queens Tournament in Berlin.  I was initially intending to go along and referee this scrim but due to a couple of health issues(gammy leg, bubonic plague/flu) I wasn't going to be skating.  One of the Belters said "Why don't you do Bench for us?" and I laughed this off and said "All I can do is occasionally shout 'Do a Win!' and keep track of the points being scored and penalties" but they decided this would be better than nothing and so there I was, on the other side of the official/team divide.  This is the first time I've done anything in derby where I haven't had to stay impartial, in fact being partial is what this is all about.

How did I find it?
Well, I enjoyed it immensely.  I found that the players on track responded when I told them to keep going, call it off, speed up, slow down etc.  I kept track of the points and who was on 3 minors and was able to get quick clarifications from the refs without needing to use timeouts.  I got good feedback from the players as well.  Apparently I am a calming influence.

I know that if I wanted to be Bench in a proper bout I'd have to do a lot of work to not only learn the tactics that the team are using, but also to find out what motivates each of the players.  Some players react well to pressure and so need that to get their game face on, some are opposite and prefer to avoid any pressure.

The experience did make me think about the encounters I have had with various bench managers over my time as a referee and I think it helped shape me into the kind of Bench Manager I would like to deal with as a Head Referee.

I'll post my thoughts on the Head Ref/Bench Manager relationship later on.