Spinning Disc, Not Vinyl: A Closer Look at the CDJ Platform

The craft of DJing has undergone a revolution, as CDJs have steadily become the standard media player in nightclubs around the world.

Just as the advent of digital audio workstations democratized music production and the expansion of high-speed internet democratized music’s distribution, CDJs smashed the main barrier to entry for DJs: collecting and playing vinyl.

Using CDs - and, more commonly, USBs full of digital files - DJs can assemble deep and diverse collections of music without the innate scarcity or fragility of the vinyl format.

While many DJs (myself included) still love and continue to play vinyl, we must admit that there are many advantages to going digital. Once you get past the purely physical benefit of not having to haul around 50 pounds of records or watch in despair as those 12"s skip repeatedly during your set, the creative potential afforded by CDJs becomes even more obvious.

To better acquaint us with CDJ features that enable users to take their sets to a higher level, we’ve consulted three DJs whose mastery of the instrument helps set them apart from their peers: Derrick Carter, Karizma, and Mark Flash of the group Underground Resistance.

The Loop Feature

Perhaps the most useful feature of the CDJ (for the sake of this article, we’ll be referring to the fairly ubiquitous Pioneer CDJ-2000 and 2000 Nexus models) is the looping function. You activate this feature by switching the player to “Loop Mode" and then selecting the length of the loop - from 1/8th of a bar to 32 bars - by tapping the touch strip below the numbers.

As long as “Quantize" is selected, the CDJ will play a perfectly quantized loop until released with the Reloop/Exit button. This can be an invaluable safety net when you need more time to complete a mix, but that’s just a fraction of what the loop can do.

For Derrick Carter, the loop function provides more control over the music. “It lets me extend or create breaks to either mix out of or extend the intros of different pieces so I can mix them in smoother. Sometimes the track doesn’t have a naturally good place to mix until further into the song, so I may even make [a loop] in order to control the pace of the set." Having a tighter grip on the music also allows Derrick to create unique blends that might as well be new tracks.

“Last weekend, I laid a Femi Kuti song over a James Brown lick I looped. I’ve looped a beat that only kicked in about halfway through a track to use as a base to ride a Corinne Bailey Rae vocal over. It adds something extra, as opposed to just playing one song and then another song and then another."


Hot Cues and Massive Music Libraries

Hot Cues are buttons located along the upper left side of the CDJ that skip to specific sections in the track being played. Karizma likes to combine looping with the use of Hot Cues, making his DJ sets more like live performances.

“Those buttons open up a whole world of creativity and editing on the fly," he attests. “For example, I like to chop beats or words into a four bar phrase." You can see Karizma diving into this in the video below during a recent performance in Croatia with DJ Spen.

“The rhythms and cadences are never the same, so it’s just as new to me as it is to the crowd," Karizma admits. For a quick tutorial on creating and triggering Hot Cues, check out this video from Pioneer.

Unlike turntables, CDJs’ pitch sliders allow users to adjust the tempo of a track to almost any speed (as much as 100% up or down) when the “WIDE" mode is selected. This allows DJs to mix together vastly different genres of music, especially when using the Master Tempo function. According to Mark Flash, “This feature allows me to change the pitch (BPM) control while remaining in the same key. Some tracks can be in the same key but at a different BPM."

This is nothing short of magic for audiences who aren’t aware of what’s being done.

One of the most basic capabilities of the CDJ - being able to play files from a USB drive or SD card - is also one of its most powerful. Beyond providing access to huge musical libraries from tiny devices, it allows DJs to test out unreleased or recently composed tracks.

Derrick Carter puts this into context. “I generally re-edit nearly everything I play. I used to have to get those edits cut to an acetate at $50-$75 a pop. Now I can just knock stuff up and bang it out without having to make an appointment with a mastering house to have the bits cut in order to play it out."

Producers with mobile setups can even adjust tracks between gigs based on the audience reaction from night to night.

Keeping It Organized

Constantly expanding music collections can sometimes be unwieldy, though, especially when selecting tracks during a set. Pioneer’s free Rekordbox software is made to be used with its CDJs and helps users organize all of their music.

Mark Flash uses Rekordbox to prepare for each show. “I’m able to manage and personalize my virtual crates so I’m not all over the place searching for tracks," he says.

Users can create drag-and-drop playlists that are sortable by dozens of variables, like BPM or key. You can also set up to eight Hot Cue points per track, so the fiddly work of finding and setting a cue point doesn’t need to happen mid-set. Rekordbox also lets users fix ID3 tags and attach artwork to the files, making browsing even easier. “Always remember to keep up with the latest updates," Mark adds.

It’s important to realize that CDJs do much more than make DJing easier. They provide opportunities for DJs to bring creative ideas to the table that no one else may have. Karizma left me with this bit of wisdom: “I would suggest [DJs] stop looking at the CDJ as just a player and start looking at it as more of an instrument."

DJ & Lighting Gear Shop Now
comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.