I’m fortunate enough to be able to choose what set-up I prefer to DJ on, and I’ve just made a decision that seems to be against the flow out there at the moment: to stop using CDJs and USB sticks and go back to using software and a controller. This seems counterintuitive as there’s an unwritten expectation that suggests we should strive towards DJing on “proper” club gear, but it turns out that personally, I’d play on a controller every time.
I experimented and went the CDJ / USB sticks route for a few gigs recently, and contrary to the whole “one day I’ll play on CDJs” idea, for me personally using this set-up felt like moving backwards, not forwards, like I was DJing with gear from the past instead of the present (or even the future).
My DJing background
First, let’s be clear: I’ve DJed on everything. I started mixing cassette tapes, moved on to vinyl, and then used every one of the CDJ models starting from the CDJ-500 during my time putting together and mixing club compilation albums.
Then like many DJs, I took a break from DJing. The bug never left me, however, and after a few years away from the decks I started to dabble again, this time going the digital route. I never used a full digital set-up before, so I went for it: After taking advice from a friend (our very own Phil Morse), I decided on Traktor, went for the Kontrol S4, and was instantly hooked. To me, all the creative limitations of vinyl that contributed to my boredom with DJing were smashed. DJing was fun again and the possibilities were endless.
I honed in on the platform, mastered the techniques, and became such a passionate advocate of digital DJing that it led me to collaborate with Digital DJ Tips on the Scratching For Controller DJs course before joining the team full time to help others learn DJing on digital gear.
I learned to use all the major DJ apps and controllers, but always stuck with using a laptop. Until recently that is…
Why I tried using CDJs and USB sticks
I DJ every week on a radio station called BeachGrooves and have always used either my Traktor Kontrol S4 controller or recently the Pioneer DJ DDJ-RX with Rekordbox DJ. The station has a CDJ set-up in the studio that the other DJs use (it’s an XDJ-1000 set, but you get the idea), and a few things happened that made me ditch the laptop in favour of using CDJs and USBs.
First, we had a big launch for the station’s new frequency that’s broadcasting in Ibiza, and around 10 of the DJs were together in the studio. I experienced what controller DJs go through once in a while – that feeling that all the other DJs were looking down on me and my “DJ toy”. One of them even laughed and pointed to my DJ controller bag saying: “What are you doing? Carrying the whole club around with you?” I smiled proudly and said: “Well, I DJ with a controller so I have to take it with me somehow!”
As much as I would like to say it didn’t bother me at all, it did. My thoughts quickly turned to: “I can play on any gear you put in front of me, I bet you couldn’t do that. I choose to play on a controller, buddy!”
The second trigger for my jump to CDJs was getting a gig at a beach club near where I live, where there were CDJ-2000NXS players in a bespoke DJ booth with just no room for controllers. Lastly, a buddy in the radio station I DJ at said: “Let’s do a back-to-back show one night using the XDJs,” so I thought: “I already use Rekordbox for track management so this will be easy. I’m going to try to make the jump to being a full CDJ / USB DJ.”
And it was easy – Rekordbox music management is fantastic, and it just took a little rethinking and planning to create the playlists I’d need for gigs and to sync them to a USB drive. I used our in-house CDJ set-up to practise on so I could learn how to navigate around folders quickly, how to search and sort tracks, how to set loops and cue points, and so on. Over two weeks, I played five sets using just CDJs and USB drives. They were fine with no major issues, but something just felt a bit… boring.
So I switched back. And I thought it would be good to share in full my final five reasons why:
5 Reasons I Prefer DJ controllers
- DJ library convenience – Managing USBs and hard drives is an extra step in the workflow that requires thought and time. I prefer grabbing my laptop and hooking it up to my controller, knowing that I’ve got everything I need there. In fact, in the few minutes before I start my set (and even during it) I can create new playlists, edit them, search for last minute tracks to add to the set, fix beatgrids, and so on
- Track previews – This was a big one for me. I like to quickly skip around tracks in the browser window and preview them in my headphone cue to remind myself of the vibe and whether it’s a suitable next track. This is easy to do in Rekordbox DJ, plus you don’t need to load the track onto a deck – you just click around the waveform in the preview player, and it doesn’t mark the track as “played”. It’s a different story on a CDJ: you have to load each track and manually search through it. It’s more time consuming, and causes me to “settle” for a tune because I got bored repeatedly loading tracks and running out of time to make my choice. And if I played the track I was previewing for longer than 45 seconds, it marked it as “played” whether I decided to play it in full or not. You don’t get this with the preview in Rekordbox DJ
- Track search and sort options – In fairness to Pioneer, the track search functions on the Nexus and Nexus2 systems are much better than CDJs of old, but searching using the touchscreens is still nowhere near as convenient or intuitive as searching on a laptop with a full Qwerty keyboard You can search tracks in your collection by whatever tiny piece of information pops into your head and you’ll get the result instantly. Also, I can configure the browser section on the laptop screen to show me whatever I need all at the same time: artist, title, BPM, key, cover art, comments, energy level, all sortable with a single click. The CDJs’ screen size means they just can’t offer this and getting all this info is clunky and too many clicks away for my liking
- Built-in recording capability – I like to record all my DJ sets. I like the raw recording of the music, meaning no voice overs and jingles, just a pure “internal” recording as mixed in the software. This just isn’t possible with a CDJ / DJM setup. You can only record the mixer output and you have to have an external recorder to be able to do it. When using a laptop / controller, it’s a “set and forget” affair with just the touch of a button
- Added performance features (eg Slicer / FX options / samplers) – Again, CDJs are getting better, but there’s only a tiny percentage of clubs that have the full Nexus / Nexus2 set-up, so for the most part the only options you have for performance are loops, slip mode and reverse, and whatever FX the mixer has. Even then you’d be lucky if it’s all connected by Pro DJ Link and beatsynced. Doing two hours of house tunes with only these features to play with can get pretty boring (at least for me), so the power of having all the performance features that DJ software and controllers have to offer in one unit is something I find far more interesting and exciting
DJ controllers are in my future…
So I decided to go back to using my DJ controller, and will continue to use it apart from in situations where I don’t have the option to do so. I know there are incredible DJs out there who have mastered the CDJ / DJM set-up and do amazingly creative stuff with it, but even with the CDJ-2000NXS2s (which are the closest to a full-featured DJ controller that Pioneer has got to), I felt handcuffed in certain areas. The whole experience was quite inconvenient, and I felt limited both in track choice and in creative performance options.
You may be asking: “But what about using CDJs in HID mode?” HID promises plug and play connectivity of your laptop running DJ software to be controlled by the CDJs and mixer, which should really be the answer to most of my gripes listed above, and it works OK with the Nexus2 system and Rekordbox DJ (though not currently with Traktor or Serato)… but the most surprising thing about it is that it’s even less “integrated” than using a USB stick.
Pioneer’s Rekordbox DJ is a fantastic piece of DJ software, and works flawlessly with native controllers such as the DDJ-RX and DDJ-RZ, but hook it up to a full Pioneer CDJ / DJM Nexus set-up? It’s not great: no waveforms on the CDJs, track search is more limited than using USB, and no control over internal FX or performance functions. Hopefully, Pioneer DJ is working to improve this, but at the time of this writing it just isn’t a wholly satisfying experience compared to using Rekordbox DJ with a controller.
So what’s the lesson? Well, if you aspire to play on CDJs and a mixer, go ahead! You’ll rarely be “caught out” in any DJ booth as this gear is pretty standard in this day and age.
Likewise, if you are DJing creatively with a controller, our advice is as it’s always been: Don’t concern yourself with “getting to CDJs one day”, just continue to concentrate on the important stuff of being a great DJ using whatever set-up you have – and don’t be afraid to insist that you use your controller at gigs.
Or better still – learn on both! For me, I actually like to know I can jump on a set of CDJs and play a decent set if it’s required of me – but it sure wouldn’t be my choice for my most creative or spontaneous performances.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you gone on to CDJs from using DJ controllers? What’s that been like for you? Or would you rather DJ with controllers above all else? Let us know below.