- CDJs offer a vinyl-like experience for digital music and even CDs
- In this day and age of MP3s and controllers, we’ll examine why so many DJs still use a CDJ
- Should you use a DDJ or CDJ?
A CDJ is a CD “deck” with a large jog wheel, which acts like a turntable for the audio media of your choice.
The moniker CDJ was first introduced by Pioneer in the mid-90s with the introduction of the CDJ range of DJ CD players.
That’s the concise answer, and if it were the complete answer, this would be a very short article, but there are many more questions to address.
When most DJs now carry their tunes on USB sticks or hard drives and use digital controllers, is there still a place for the CDJ in today’s DJ market?
How has the CDJ evolved to keep up with ever-changing trends in DJing? And finally, why do some DJs still insist on using CDJs today?
The History of the CDJ
The original CDJ was designed to accommodate the transition many DJs made from vinyl (and, before that, tape).
Gone were the days of heavy flight cases of 12″ LPs, replaced by a lightweight book full of CDs (without sleeves), each one able to carry up to 74 minutes of tracks.
The Pioneer CDJ-500 was the first mainstream controller to be released, which was digitally operated and also had a jog wheel for setting cueing points.
There had previously been earlier models of professional CD decks designed for DJs, like the Technics SL-P1200, but they failed to capture the market in the same way Pioneer did and were often intended for other types of users.
For example, rack-mounted dual CD players (from companies like Denon, Gemini, and Vestax, to name but a few) which featured a separate controller were popular with karaoke DJs who capitalized on the CD-J technology (and again, the space-saving features of CDs versus the huge 12-inch laser discs).
However, this style of CD player was not suited for DJs, which is where Pioneer came in.
The Evolution of the Pioneer CDJ
Although the early Pioneer CDJs like the CDJ-500 (MK 1 & 2), CDJ-500S (released as the CDJ-700S in the US), and the CDJ-100S (a “bedroom” CDJ for those on a budget) all featured jog wheels, they only allowed for cueing up tracks.
It wasn’t until the now iconic Pioneer CDJ-1000 was released in 2001 that CDJs could truly emulate vinyl with Vinyl Mode and a large jog wheel, which allowed for scratching and pitch control in a similar way to vinyl turntables.
The CDJ-1000 was also the first Pioneer CD player to feature a front-loading slot for inserting the CDs since the top of the player was dominated by the large 7” tactile jog wheel.
In the center of the jog wheel, you also had an LCD display to show positioning information, while a separate LCD screen at the top of the player showed a basic waveform display.
This was the first instance of this type of display in a CDJ.
Additional features included the ability to reverse the playback or emulate the brake stop of a turntable.
You could also store up to three cue points on a removable SD memory card.
Other developments in later models included a reduction in the size and change in form factor to make CDJs rack-mountable, improvements in the jog wheel, a wider +/- 100% pitch range, and much faster response times.
MP3 playback was added first to CDR/CDRWs, then later to USB sticks or external drives which could be read by the CDJ.
Additionally, later models were compatible with Pioneer’s proprietary RekordBox software and larger full-color WQVGA LCD displays.
What is a CDJ Today?
A Pioneer CDJ today is much more advanced than the earlier models introduced by Pioneer.
The 7” jog wheel was a primary feature of the CDJ-1000 and is still on most Pioneer CDJs, but so many other features have been added since they were first introduced.
The Pioneer CDJ-400, first released in 2007, added the ability to play tracks from external USB formats as well as the ability to use the CDJ as a controller for DJ software, such as Serato or Traktor in both MIDI or the native HID format.
The CDJ Nexus players, such as the CDJ-2000NXS2, have since become the industry standard that all other CDJs (both Pioneer and other brands) aspire to.
A large LCD display above the jog wheel on a CDJ Nexus allows the user to see information such as an advanced waveform display, beat grids, and track info previously only available to laptop users.
The integration of RekordBox and, in some cases, Serato or Traktor, allows a Pioneer CDJ to be used as a controller without the need for time-coded physical CDs.
Rekordbox is a professional DJ platform that integrates everything from cloud music management to creative performance capabilities.
- Unlimited cloud storage
- Brilliant library management
- Intuitive interface
This makes the latest version of CDJs into what are virtually stand-alone controllers rather than just CD players.
Large buttons for hot cues, built-in FX, and the lack of a sync button on most CDJs further blur the line between a controller and a CDJ.
Pioneer even released a line of media players known as the XDJs, which had the same physical form as a CDJ but without the CD slot, and they only used digital media.
What is Vinyl Mode on a CDJ?
Before we get into why some DJs still use CDJs rather than the more commonly placed controllers nowadays, let’s look at what many see as the biggest advantage of industry-standard CDJs – Vinyl Mode.
The large 7” jog wheel which dominates a CDJ acts like a digital turntable.
A button allows for switching between Cue and Vinyl Mode. In the default Cue Mode, the jog wheel allows for fast scrolling through the selected track to choose a cue point or wherever you want to drop the “virtual needle” on the disc.
Listening through headphones, you can quickly scrub through a track while monitoring the audio.
In Vinyl Mode, the jog wheel acts like the platter of a traditional turntable.
Moving the jog wheel backward and forwards allows you to “scratch” a track just like you would with a vinyl record.
You can speed up or slow down the track using the jog wheel and even use effects like a vinyl-inspired brake or “record scratch”.
CDJs vs Controllers: Why do Some DJs Prefer CDJs?
Laptop vs. No Laptop
Although over recent years, DJ controllers have gotten much better in quality and are no longer the cheap plastic consoles they used to be, most have a major drawback – they also need a laptop to operate.
CDJs, by comparison, especially now that they have RekordBox integrated, can act as standalone units.
Okay, so you may need two CDJs and a mixer to operate this way, but most clubs will already have these in place.
All the DJ needs to do is turn up with their collection, either on USB sticks or an external SSD/HHD, and plug in.
A DJ can bring a few physical CDs if they haven’t had time to rip them yet and can also rip to the CDJ USB sticks using the player itself.
Many DJs find that using a CDJ rather than a laptop-connected controller allows for more connection with the crowd.
Rather than constantly flicking your eyes between a laptop screen and the player, you can use the CDJ display to select the next track, choose your cue points, and carry on mixing.
By comparison, DJ software such as Serato or Traktor tends to overcomplicate things on the laptop screen with so many features that DJs can often overwork a mix.
CDJs, on the whole, are much more reliable than controllers or DDJs.
If anything goes wrong with a DDJ controller, it will normally brick the whole unit or even freeze the laptop, meaning those awkward moments of silence mid-set that every DJ wants to avoid.
On the other hand, if any part of a CDJ/Mixer setup becomes defective, you can quickly swap the faulty part while still playing on the other deck.
More Features and Unit Independence
With digital controllers, you are pretty much tied to the features it comes with, for example, the number of cue buttons, effects parameters, channels, etc.
Although the software may be updated occasionally, controllers rely on the manufacturer or software developer to add features like additional FX packs or different EQ settings.
However, with a CDJ and mixer setup, you can upgrade your system as and when you want.
External FX units are easy to add, the EQ is dependent on the mixer not built into the CDJ, and extra decks can be added for more channels.
The Big Downsides of CDJs
Portability and cost factors are the two major disadvantages of a CDJ setup.
Controllers are an all-in-one unit, which means they can be quite easy to slip in a dedicated case or in some cases, a backpack and transport from gig to gig.
No extra bags for all the interconnecting cables and power bricks; instead, you just need your headphones, and the connection simply plugs into an amp or speakers.
Of course, you may still need a laptop to go with most controllers.
However, some of the high-end DDJs (especially the XDJ range) can now operate independently of a laptop and instead have onboard computer chips to handle the OS of the controller.
A CDJ-based system requires at least 2 CDJs and a mixer, if not an external FX unit too.
You will need interconnecting cables for each unit and a sometimes hefty power supply, and it can be quite difficult to slip all into one bag.
Plus, you will need time to set up the separate components before a gig, compared to the ease of just plugging into the amp and laptop with a controller.
Suppose you go the route of separate components. In that case, it’s also usually more costly than an all-in-one digital controller unless you look at purchasing one of the very high-end controllers.
Which Controller is Most Like a CDJ?
Pioneer DJ went back to the drawing board to make the CDJ-3000 digital DJ media deck the best-sounding and best-feeling DJ player they’ve ever created.
- Cutting-edge DJ technology
- Simplifies performance
- Total rekordbox integration
If you fancy the best of both worlds – the feel of a CDJ but the convenience of a digital DDJ controller- there are some units that copy the club layout style of a CDJ setup.
The Pioneer DDJ-1000 was favored by many DJs when it was introduced, as it veered away from the traditional controller layouts of previous DDJs and instead opted for a standalone mixer section connected to two CDJ-like media controllers, with large 7” jog wheels in the center of each.
With RekordBox integration and a large LCD display, it offers the features of a laptop system but without the need to connect an external laptop.
You can even plug in an iOS or Android phone for your digital library, similar to many top-end CDJs.
DDJ vs CDJ – Which is Best?
The Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000 has everything you need to perform at events and parties, including two full-size jog wheels, 14 Beat FX, and 16 multicolored performance pads.
- Full-size jog wheels
- Large LCD displays
- Quality soundcard
Over the past few decades, the CDJ has become the gold standard for professional club DJing.
Although many vinyl purists still have difficulty moving away from their beloved records, DJs who have grabbed the digital world with both hands find a Pioneer CDJ the best alternative to mixing with vinyl, as it has many of the same features.
You will find that most clubs have some sort of CDJ system in place, which allows for easy hot-swapping of tracks by DJs, and even top-end festivals will offer CDJ-based systems for the many DJs performing.
Since fewer DJs carry CDs, nowadays, the CD units mainly offer digital storage solutions but still take the familiar form of a CDJ.
For beginners or DJs who need to be more portable, a controller can be a viable option, and there are many ideal for training on hardware similar to a CDJ, such as the Pioneer DDJ-1000 or DDJ-400.
Although other manufacturers like Denon or Numark also make professional DJ CD players, the Pioneer CDJ has secured its place in the history of dance music, paving the way forward from vinyl to the digital age.