What Is A CDJ? (Full Explanation)

When you are new to DJing, DJ controllers can be a bewildering experience. Often it’s the controller we used to learn that we are most familiar with.

But as you grow your mixing and DJing skills, and you begin to understand the different functions of each pad and knob, you may realise you have outgrown the controller you currently have.

It’s important to do your research and understand what controllers are out there, which controllers have more specific purposes, and what hardware the professional DJs use.

As you begin your mixing journey and you use more DJ controllers than simply your own, you will learn which controllers suit your style and which controllers impede your ability.

In addition, you will start to figure out whether you’re happy performing for friends and recording your mixes or if you want to take a more professional approach to DJing and you want to start playing venues and hone your skills as a live DJ.

If you are the latter, and you want to start mixing in clubs, one of the first steps is understanding the equipment that is considered the universal standard for professional DJs and trusted venues alike.

Queue Pioneer’s CDJ controller. Back in 1994 when Pioneer first released the CDJ-500 it was one of the first mainstream controllers that operated digitally.

The traditional DJ used vinyl records on a turntable, and mixed purely by ear and rhythm rather than the digital aids that the modern DJ relies on.

The original CDJ was created to accommodate the transition from vinyl and tape to the CD – hence ‘CDJ’.

Pioneer have become a household name among DJ’s and sound engineer’s alike as their hardware engineering was the spark that reignited dance and rave culture across the globe.

In modern DJ culture, the constantly improving CDJ is considered the peak of controller engineering and is the universal standard controller in any club that is worth its salt in the club scene.

Continue reading if you want to learn about why the CDJ is considered the best and what features make it stand out from other controllers.

Why The CDJ Stands Out From Other Digital Controllers.

Some don’t consider a CDJ to be a DJ controller, but instead label it a ‘digital music player’. This is because it doesn’t control a laptop. However, as mixing software, specifically Rekordbox, is integrated into the unit’s software, it essentially functions the same way.

It’s useful to compare the CDJ to other ‘controllers’ in order to understand why it is different and stands on its own.

There are some technological developments within the CDJ that make it stand out from other DJ controllers and also set it apart from the vinyl turntable.

Most lower level digital controllers require the use of a laptop to run the software that plays and loads the digital mp3 tracks. These softwares, such as Rekordbox and SeratoDJ, help the modern DJ by displaying the waveform of each song.

This allows the DJ to see each component of the sound wave, specifically the highs, lows, and mids which are paramount to creating an equalising balance as the songs mix into each other.

These softwares often display each track’s waveform as parallel to each other which makes the beat matching process easier with the addition of beatgrids and automatic sync buttons.

In contrast, vinyl DJs simply use their ear to match the beats and BPM of the songs.

What makes the CDJ stand out from its digital hardware counterparts is that Pioneer runs Rekordbox software directly within the CDJs, displaying each track’s waveform individually on an in-built digital display.

There also isn’t a sync button on the CDJ, simply a BPM slider like a vinyl turntable.  This is a combinational approach whereby the DJ’s tracks are digitilaised but the DJ treats the tracks as if they were vinyl, beat matching with his ear and changing BPM manually.

One disadvantage of the CDJ is that you also need to buy an independent mixer alongside purchasing at least two CDJ controllers.

However, the more CDJs you have, the more channels you can load tracks to and mix, which allows you to fill as many channels as your mixer allows.

Why Have Pioneer’s CDJs Been Given The Gold Standard?

As DJs started to move from the physical realm of vinyl to the digital realm of CD and USB, certain issues arose that were solved by the CDJ. If you were a vinyl DJ you would have to carry around a massive box full of the vinyls that you wanted to play.

This creates some physical impracticalities, including the risk of your collection being stolen off stage, or causing damage to your records by constantly turning and beat matching them.

As DJs moved from CDs to USBs Pioneer changed with the times and the CDJ now has a USB port built into its hardware. Now you can simply plug in your USB and be ready to mix.

What the CDJ offered was the ability to get rid of the physical issues that came with vinyl but also to directly replicate the feel and features of vinyl mixing within the digital realm.

As you can expect, most vinyl DJs were hesitant to make the move to digital hardware and some still recognise the vinyl turntable as a sacred relic and suggest the optimisation and efficiency approach to digital hardware cuts corners and disregards the time and effort they put into their craft.

Those who rode the wave into the digital realm found that Pioneer’s CDJ was the best alternative to vinyl mixing as its features were so similar.

Much like vinyl turntables, CDJs, and other DJ controllers, have a physical jog wheel and spin wheel which you control much like a vinyl record on a turntable.

The CDJ also got rid of the sync button common on other controllers to encourage DJs to learn how to do this manually like their vinyl ancestors.

Displaying each track’s waveform individually on each CDJ rather than parallel as on other softwares also promotes DJs to beatmatch by ear rather than through beatgrids and automatic features provided by mixing software.

So, the CDJ has become a universal standard in clubs and venues across the world as it creates the perfect balance between the advantages of digital software while upholding the traditional skill of the DJ through the design choices of its physical hardware.

Final Thoughts

Pioneer’s CDJ has a special place in the global history of dance music, they paved the way for the move from vinyl to digital.

Across the world, clubs and venues consider CDJs the gold standard when it comes to mixing and expect their DJs to be able to plug straight into their equipment and rock the house.

If you want to start building up towards using CDJs then consider the Pioneer DDJ-400s which are made to train the beginner DJ on similar hardware to the CDJs.

However, it’s important to recognise that hardware isn’t always the most important thing; a good DJ should be able to perform equally well on the worst controllers as well as the best.

It’s not about the hardware, it’s about what you do with it. This is the issue vinyl traditionalists have with modern hardware is that it cuts corners and creates dependence on hardware features rather than natural skill.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter if you have the best hardware or the worst, the skill and practice of the DJ should shine through.

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