DJ-ing for Roller Derby

So here’s an interesting thing: my DJ-ing career began with providing music for Roller Derby games – and I still do one every now and again. In early December I was privileged to be selected (for the second year running) as the sole musical supplier to BEARDI, a 2-day, international, Men’s Roller Derby tournament.

DJ-ing for any kind of live sport presents a set of unique challenges that you’ll probably not encounter in any other line of work. There’s an especially fine line to be trodden between enhancing the audience experience of the game and interfering with it.

The challenges

  • First of all, you’re going to be playing in a sports hall, one of the most acoustically unsuitable places to DJ in the known universe.
  • With a noisy sport going on.
  • With seven (yes, seven. Go count ’em) referees, all blowing whistles and shouting instructions.
  • With an enthusiastic crowd who’re actively trying to drown each other out.
  • And a couple of announcers who need to be heard over everything else.
  • Except the refs. They need to be heard over everything everything else.
  • Did I mention the noise?
  • Moving on – you’re going to be playing for anything from 4 to 40 hours, depending on whether this is a one-off game or a tournament. So, two things: stamina and masses of music. Got both? Sorted. Got neither? You’re in trouble, son.
  • Those announcers? There could be one of ’em, there could be a team of a dozen. Typically for humans, they’ve all got wildly different voices, different levels of projection and varying degrees of microphone skills.
  • The players? Yeah, those guys – they’ve got pet tunes they want to hear during warm-ups, and every team has a “skate-out” tune (needless to say, this needs to be heard above everything everything EVERYTHING else). Skate-outs need to be in the right order, at the right time, and need to start from a sensible cue-point. Oh, and sometimes the teams won’t tell you what their skate-out is until the last possible moment, so you’ll be doing all of this on-the-fly. Easy, right?
  • That rowdy audience? They’re why you’re here. You’ve got to entertain them for (potentially) the next couple of days. Some of them might have pretty strong ideas about what they want to hear. As is fairly normal for any audience anywhere at any time, some of them will have much stronger ideas about what they don’t want to hear – usually starting about 10 seconds after you’ve started playing the offending track. Oh, and keep a close eye on your “explicit” tags, because there’ll be kids in amongst the crowd. Oh yes, this just gets easier and easier to arrange, right?
  • Note that if at any point the room gets too loud, a referee (or possibly a delegation of them) will come and ask you to turn it down. Referees are lovely people who are only ever stern when you’re not paying proper attention, so pay attention! Only thing is, it might not actually be you that’s the noisy component in the overall noise-soup that’s going on. But it’s going to be your job to fix it anyway; so no pressure and no remote chance of stern-ness there, eh? Isn’t this fun?
  • Talking of refs – ditch the latin carnival tunes, they’re not going to take kindly to anything with whistles in. Just sayin’.
  • Hey! Remember there’s some sport being played in amongst all of this chaos? Yeah. You’re going to want to keep pace with what’s going on, so make sure you’ve got plenty of material that’s north of 120bpm ready. Tons of it. Days of it, to be on the safe side.
  • However… sometimes the sport element of the game will stop abruptly and the watching-the-paramedics-do-their-thing element of the game will take over. Very, very abruptly. Here’s where you really need to be on your game. The medics need to hear each other, the injured skater, the refs. The audience need to be kept ticking over and you need to keep it (and this is the really, really important bit) respectful and inoffensive, as there’s an upwards-of-50%-chance that someone’s going home in an ambulance. So, not the ideal time to play Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”, or Beck’s “Loser”, or The Primitive’s “Crash” or The Foo’s “DOA” … you get the picture.
  • Oh, and… not wishing to complicate things but … there’s a chance you might have to pipe the whole of your output to the live video stream, too. Only with a bit less music, and a bit more announcer. You can do that, though, yes?
  • Finally… you’re going to have to health-and-safety the living daylights out of your setup. PAT tests, PLI, kilometers of Gaffa and hazard tape, full, written Risk Assessment, the works. You’re working in a public environment and you’d better not forget it for even a second.
IMG_6588
One consolation – you get a great view of the action on-track!

So how do we make this work? See below for my awesome tips for Derby DJs and Leagues!

PA

If you’re a League buying a PA for your regular hall or a DJ equipping for a game, you’re going to look at that massive space you’ve got to work with and go for the biggest-assed, highest-wattage package you can find or afford. This is the single biggest mistake that you could make and brings me to the one piece of advice that, if you ignore everything else in this post, you need to pay attention to:

Bigger does not equal better, louder does not equal clearer.

See that massive hall in the pictures? I cover that with a pair of 300w peak cabs on stands, with 8″ drivers… and it’s fine. The key thing here is that the announcers’ voices are the priority, not the music. So, this is not an environment for massive bass bins; smaller drivers will give you a tighter, more focussed sound that’s more likely to go where you want it, rather than just echo all over the place, annoy the players and refs and basically turn the venue into the auditory equivalent of a very slow explosion in an oil-drum factory.

If you can, get your hands on a system that will automatically assign priority to your mics – that is, when your announcers are talking, the music automatically dips in volume until the talking stops. This guarantees vocal clarity, gets rid of the need for the DJ to be constantly riding the faders and, trust me, announcers love this more than anything. If you’ve already got a PA without this feature, get a dual compressor unit (cheap Behringer unit from eBay would be my steer on this) that you can sidechain your signals through to achieve the desired result.

Oh, yeah – you might want to read up on sidechaining if you dont have this down already. Not hard, just… geeky.

If, due to the size or layout of your venue, a pair of cabs isn’t going to cut it, get more small cabs. You’re way better off with more, lower-output units than with a couple of massive beast-speakers. Remember this is for the audience, no-one else; you should have enough cabs to cover however many audience blocks your venue is arranged for. Under absolutely no circumstances should your speakers face the track, or be projecting sound across the track. Get longer cables if necessary (I made up two 50-meter speaker cables for this reason – you could just buy some but I’m a geek and a skinflint). Seriously folks – if you think pointing the PA across the field of play is a good idea, put the shiny audio toys down and go home, you’re doing more harm than good.

Final word on PA systems: this is one of the few areas where active or powered loudspeakers aren’t such a great idea. With actives, you’ll need to run both power and audio signal to each cabinet. Power sockets are at a bit of a premium in most sports halls and are guaranteed to be a long way from where you want your cabs. A traditional mixer/amp is going to deliver better results; your output levels will be more controllable, it’s easy to add more cabs to the output chain and your long cables will be relatively cheap & robust in comparison with shielded audio cable (this being fairly important as skaters will skate over your lovingly-positioned and taped-down cables).

Mics

Go ahead, buy nice radio mics for your announcers. Seriously, do it. Just make sure you buy a stack of batteries, is all. And they’ve got enough range. And they won’t be interfered with by the lights, video setup, scoreboard, steel-framed bleachers… oh, and make sure you’ve still got a set of wired mics to hand. Just in case, right?

I’ve been down the wireless route and backed right out of it again. Can you tell?

Wireless is great when it works. But in my humble opinion, you can’t beat a couple of mid-budget, wired, dynamic mics on stands for your announcers. No handling noise, guaranteed signal, fewer points-of-failure in the audio chain.

That’s all I’m gonna say about that. You rock your wireless if you want to, I’ll pass, thanks.

Monitors

Y’see, the thing is, if you use wired mics and therefore tie your announcers down to one place, you can give them a nice monitor speaker so they can hear themselves. That’s right, I’m not letting the wireless thing go.

Monitors, it turns out, are almost unbelievably important. If all your announcers can hear of their own voices is a hugely-delayed echo from the opposite wall of the hall, they’re going to perform really weirdly. They’ll shrink from the mic because they’ve got no way to gauge their own loudness and their speech will slow to accomodate the lag they’re hearing. This is where a small, active speaker really comes into it’s own, giving your announcers as clear a version of themselves as the audience is receiving – with no lag. Priceless.

As a DJ you’ll have already thought of this and set a monitor up for yourself too, right? Because you need to hear your mix before your audience does, if only by milliseconds. What do you mean, you’ll do it all on headphones? For ten hours at a stretch? You sure about that?

Seriously, stop messing about with headphones (save them for cueing up, previewing and gain-matching your tunes, like, y’know, they’re meant to be used), rig two monitors off an auxillary output from your mixer/amp, place one by your announcers and one by yourself and cease to worry about it.

Mixing

One word:

MONO

With your cabs spaced out like they will be, stereo would be just nonsensical, so don’t even try it. Set your DJ mixer (or software) to output in mono, center everything on the mixer and leave it there.

You’ll need a mixer or mixer/amp with at least a couple of aux outputs – one for your monitors (see above) and one for sending a feed out to the video streamers if they want it. You might need another for side-chaining. You’ll definitely want at least 3 mic inputs (2 announcers + 1 spare for interviews and as general backup) and an input from your DJ mixer. And that’s about it – that’s a pretty damn basic (and cheap) mixer right there. Maybe, if you wanted to be really clever about it, you’d use inserts on your mic channels to inject a compressor/limiter/gate combination in there. Of course, with a decent, low-latency audio interface with, say, eight inputs and outputs you could probably do the whole thing in software…

You know what? This isn’t DJ-ing.

It’s live radio production.

Music

I’m not going to tell you what to play; you’re a grown-up now and ought to be able to work that out for yourself.

But I will say this:

  • Be eclectic. You might have a lot of time to fill, use it to stretch yourself.
  • Keep it clean, ‘cos, y’know… kids.
  • Injured player? Take my advice – bail to something innocuous and instrumental. I keep some Miles Davis cued up on deck 3, just in case. This has been so successful that it is now referred to by game officials as “injury jazz”. And while you’re at it, have lots of that stuff ready – play can stop for a long time if, for example, an ambulance is needed.
  • Be organised about your skateout tunes and any other set pieces. Put ’em in a crate (real or virtual), keep notes, make sure you can identify the right song at the right time. Sort your cue points out in advance.
  • Have fun with it. Give yourself points for getting various levels of player and official to dance.
  • Leagues – please be aware, if you’re playing MP3s from an iPod at a game, even if the venue has PRS cover you are not licensed to play the music that you are playing. Be legal and be fair to the artists: be licensed. Just do it, because you should. If you can’t afford a Pro-Dub license, hire a DJ who can.

Health and Safety

Can’t say it enough:

You have to be ALL. OVER. THIS.

If the venue isn’t asking for the whole nine yards of PAT, PLI, Risk Assessment… do it anyway because you’re dealing with the public and these staggeringly simple steps protect you and your League. Just get over it and get the paperwork done. It’s not hard.

Or, hire someone who’s already got it covered.

Either way:

  • If you’ve got 100 meters of speaker cable, you should have (and expect to use) 150 meters of Gaffa tape. So cost that in.
  • Trip hazards are the enemy of civilised sports; deal with them.
  • If the venue hasn’t asked you for a PAT test certificate, view their electrics with suspicion. Also, view their electrics with suspicion anyway – bring an RCD with you.
  • Only use extension leads that you own and have personally checked.
  • If you can put a cable above a doorway rather than across it (regardless of how much Gaffa and hazard tape you can deploy) that’s about a million percent better. Bring cable ties and a stepladder to the party, otherwise you can’t do this remarkably straightforward and awesome thing.
  • Make sure your own workspace is safe and clear.
  • Find a way to physically discourage liquids from your workspace and equipment.

You know… the obvious stuff. Just get it done.

DJ Kit

I’m not saying a thing about this because, seriously, it’s the least important part of working an event like this. You can do the whole thing from an iPod or a CD player or whatever. Just promise me one thing: if you’ re using pro kit, use it like a pro. Get your gains right. Plan your crossfades. Never stop counting. Like, doing real DJ-ing, yes?

Have some kind of backup in place, though. Just in case your laptop crashes.

Because it will.

DJ Workspace

I’m going to make one comment on this and it’s an important one. The players out on the track have a team of 7 refs and a whole mob of other officials keeping an eye on their safety and health at all times. The peripheral workers at a game can get overlooked – don’t let it be you.

  • Get a proper DJ equipment stand, at a suitable height to work at. Your back will thank you for it. Don’t try to DJ for two days straight at an ordinary-height table; that’s just madness.
  • If you use a laptop, get a laptop stand too, so that your screen is close to eye-level when you’re standing.
  • If you need ear protection, you’re doing everything wrong. Turn the amps off and go home.
  • Leagues – it’s not a huge investment to provide this equipment for your DJ or DJs – might be worth considering at your next AGM, and you’ll be loved for it.

So…

… that about wraps up this massive blog post. Got questions? Get in touch or leave me a comment below. If you’re a League feel free to use me to consult on equipment, budgets, setting up and training – it’s pretty cost-effective to do this stuff right, but potentially costly to get wrong.

Some of this will apply to other sports or other types of event, too – let me know if you’ve got similar, overlapping or wildly different experiences!

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