Complete Guide To Switching From DJ Controllers to CDJs

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
August 9, 2022

Most hobby DJs use DJ controllers and laptop software, because it’s a cheap, powerful way to DJ. However, most clubs have Pioneer DJ CDJs installed, which is a different way to DJ. If you want to play in clubs, you may decide you want to DJ on the Pioneer CDJs rather than try to take your own equipment with you. In this article, we’ll cover all you need to know to make the switch from DJ controllers to CDJs.

Get the free training

We’ve made a free two-hour Pioneer CDJ-3000 training tutorial and video manual, that contains all you need to know to make the switch from DJ controllers to CDJs. It’s like having a CDJ-3000 expert talk you through every single feature, to give you the confidence to play on CDJs even if you’ve never used them. Don’t battle with the manual – let us show you for free.

Click here to get your FREE two-hour CDJ training

Contents

  1. What are CDJs?
  2. What’s the usual way to use CDJs?
  3. What other ways can I use CDJs?
  4. Preparing to use CDJs for the first time
  5. DJing on CDJs for the first time
  6. Resources to help you make the transition
  7. How to get hands-on experience with CDJs
Photo via djkit.com

Switching From DJ Controllers To CDJs

What are CDJs?

CDJs are industry-standard music players for DJs. Originally they had CD slots (hence “CDJ”), then they gained USB sockets so DJs could play music from USB drives rather than CDs, and then they got network connections so they could not only be connected to each other and to a DJ mixer, but also to computers – even phones and the internet!

Nowadays, the best way to think of CDJs is as very adaptable, universal DJ separates, that when properly set up with a mixer, can be used to play music from USB, without a laptop involved. But they can also be used in many other ways – indeed, including with a laptop and DJ software! So it turns out there are loads of ways CDJs can be used. In this guide we’ll concentrate on the preferred and most popular method, but we’ll cover all the others too.

Read this next: Pioneer DJ CDJ-3000 Media Player Review

So, what’s the usual way to use CDJs?

The usual way DJs use CDJs is by plugging in a USB drive to one of the units, containing specially prepared music files and associated data, such as waveform info, playlists and so on. The CDJs will be set up in such a way that just the one USB will be “visible” to all units, ie there’s no need to plug a separate USB of music into each player, as was the case in the past.

When we say “specially prepared” music files, we mean files that have been analysed on a computer beforehand. The way this is done is with Pioneer DJ’s free Rekordbox software – the exact same software DJs use with many Pioneer DJ Rekordbox controllers. By analysing the music beforehand on Rekordbox, DJs can add cue points and loops, build playlists and add info like musical key to their files, before “exporting” the playlists needed for any DJ set. Indeed, the mode you need to use in Rekordbox to do this is actually called “Export” mode, as opposed to “Performance” mode, which is the mode used with Rekordbox and a DJ controller.

Rekordbox makes all of this simple to do – If you’ve ever used any laptop music software, from WinAmp to iTunes, you’ll be fine. There’s a simple “transfer” window when you’re ready, which takes your prepared playlists and copies them to your USB drive, which you then unplug from the laptop and take with you to your gig. It can take a while to copy across your playlists, depending on the transfer speeds of your laptop and USB drive.

Nowadays, CDJs have pretty much all the features you find on DJ software – the only thing you’ll possibly miss is a sampler, because CDJs don’t have samplers built-in like DJ software does – but otherwise, DJing with them is similar to using laptop software. You get waveforms, sync buttons, key change and key sync, hot cues, auto loops and so on. So really it’s just a case of getting familiar with the layout and workflow.

If you’ve DJed on Pioneer DJ Rekordbox controllers, even that will be easy, as all the latest Rekordbox controllers have a similar layout to pro CDJs anyway. Even the mixer sections on these controllers are similar in layout to the mixer you’ll likely find in the pro DJ booth, namely the Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS2.

DJ like a pro using ANY set-up: The Complete DJ Course

What other ways can I use CDJs?

Remember I said at the beginning that CDJs are basically “universal” players, designed to work in all kinds of ways? While for most DJs, the preferable way to use CDJs would be as I just described, it is by no means the only way. So before we move on to how to prepare to use CDJs and the things to look out for when you are playing on them for the first time, let’s cover off all those other ways you can use them.

It may just be that you won’t have to make a big switch away from how you currently DJ at all – or it may be that one of the more exciting, fringe ways to use CDJs actually excites you more than the normal way of doing things!

So, here are some of the other ways you can use a club’s CDJs:

  • Using your laptop as effectively a big “hard drive” – Using a function called “Link”, you can plug in your laptop running Rekordbox, and use the CDJs exactly as if you had plugged in a USB drive, accessing your laptop’s Rekordbox music library in exactly the same way. The two advantages to this are that it is a bigger screen/better keyboard for searching and displaying your music library than the screens on the CDJs, and that it means you don’t have to export to USB every time you want to update your playlist
  • Using the CDJs to control your laptop DJ software – Nowadays, a CDJ plus mixer set-up can be used like a massive controller, simply controlling your laptop software. With Rekordbox it is really easy (after all, Rekordbox is Pioneer DJ’s own software), but it also works with Serato, Traktor, Virtual DJ and djay Pro AI. If you really don’t want to “ditch the laptop” or change your workflow too much, but you feel silly insisting on being allowed to bring your DJ controller to club gigs, this could be the way for you
  • Accessing your music “in the cloud” – DJing is slowly but surely catching up with the rest of the world with music moving to the cloud, and CDJs now work with cloud music, too. Using a feature called CloudDirectPlay and with a subscription to Pioneer DJ’s Rekordbox Pro software, you can have a music collection in Dropbox, which you can work on from any laptop or mobile device, and which is accessible to you from any networked, online CDJ set-up
  • Doing it the “old school” way – While you can no longer take a wallet of CDs with you to play on modern club CDJs, you can still take a USB drive with a load of MP3s or WAVs on it, in folders, that haven’t been pre-analysed at all. You’ll miss out on most of the modern features of CDJs, but for just playing tracks as you may always have done, you don’t need to go further than this. And keep this quiet, but there are veteran big-name DJs who have always done this, and are still doing it this way after all these years

Preparing to use CDJs for the first time

So you’ve got a DJ gig coming up, the club has CDJs, and you really want to use them. Where do you start?

The main thing you have to do is get your existing DJ software library ready to use with CDJs. DJ software keeps vital info about your music in a database, and that database needs to be converted to work with CDJs. This saves you all the work of re-building your playlists, adding your cues and loops, and so on, just so you can DJ on CDJs.

If you already use Pioneer DJ’s Rekordbox DJ software with a DJ controller, the great news is you need do very little! Switch from “Performance” mode to “Export” mode in your software (dropdown top left), and you’ll be on the screen where you can export your music to USB drive to use in CDJs. This is why we recommend DJs who know they’ll want to use CDJs at some point to always buy a controller that comes with Rekordbox software, ie a Pioneer DJ controller – it’s all in the same ecosystem.

However, if you don’t, you have two choices:

  • Add your music to Rekordbox and let it re-analyse everything from scratch – If you have few playlists, a relatively small music collection, don’t really use pre-prepared hot cues and loops, and really just want your music in a good state to use on CDJs, this is the simplest way. Import your music into Rekordbox, then go from there. You’ll have to add any cues and loops you do want and build any playlists from scratch, though
  • Convert your existing Serato, Traktor, Virtual DJ etc library to Rekordbox using third-party software – Rekordbox unfortunately doesn’t have conversion built in for this purpose. However, there are third-party solutions. For Mac users, the reasonably priced DJCU (DJ Conversion Utility) will do the trick. For both Mac and Windows users, Lexicon DJ is a powerful platform that does much more than this one task, but can also do this for you. It’s a subscription, but if you don’t want any of that software’s other features, you could always subscribe, make the conversion, then unsubscribe if this is a “one off” switch for you

Once you’ve got your library in Rekordbox, the final task is to export to a USB drive. Any modern big-brand USB drive will do – we like the SanDisk Extreme Pro drives. Format your drive to FAT32, and using the export manager feature (bottom left of the Export page in Rekordbox), choose the playlist or playlists you want to export for your gig, and set it exporting. Once you’re done, eject the drive, pop it in your DJ bag with your headphones (it’s a good idea to take a backup, too), and you’re ready to head for the club.

Read this next: Controller DJs! Don’t Spin On CDJs Until You’ve Checked These 5 Settings

DJing on CDJs for the first time

So you’re at the club, USB in hand, and you’re DJing next. Two things I have to tell you: This is going to be much easier than you feared by the time you reach the end of your first gig, but it’s going to be harder than you hoped for the first few minutes!

Think about driving an unfamiliar car. At first, you realise just how good you are at driving the old one (you know where everything is without thinking), but soon enough, you wonder what you were worried about.

To help ease your transition, here are some things to know:

  • CDJ DJing means you’ll be using two screens, not one – If you’re used to laptop DJing, this may throw you. However, you can still “see” the waveform from the other player/s on each screen for easy beatmixing (and don’t worry if you are a “sync” DJ – CDJs have had sync buttons for years now), and it’ll take you very little time to get used to accessing your library on the player you want to load a track to next. However, just getting used to two relatively small touchscreens that are by your hands rather than closer to eye level (as a laptop on a stand would be) will take a little while
  • Hot cues behave differently on CDJs – On all DJ software, the default or at least an option is what’s called “gated cues” – when you press a hot cue button, the track will play from that cue point only for as long as your hand is on it, assuming the track wasn’t playing in the first place. With CDJs, the track will always play permanently from that point, no matter. For DJs used to using cue points a lot, this may be the biggest thing you’ll need to adapt to, keeping a finger hovering over the play/pause button for an extra tap to stop a track you’ve just triggered via hot cue if that is what you intended
  • Additionally, CDJs have an extra, separate cue system that may confuse you – CDJs have something called “Memory cues”, separate from the hot cues we just discussed and that you will be used to from DJ software. You can safely ignore them until you’re ready to explore what they can do for you – they are by no means essential. As you now know, CDJs also have hot cues, so just stick with them (bear in mind that hot cues are laid out above the decks on CDJs, too)
  • Like controllers, CDJs have two jogwheel modes, but the “non vinyl” (or “CDJ”) mode behaves a little differently – “Vinyl” mode means the jogwheels can control music as if you were playing vinyl, which is how we tend to use DJ controllers/software. “CDJ” mode turns the whole jogwheel into a “nudge” control, which some DJs prefer. Just know that if you pause a track in CDJ mode, you’ll hear a tiny part (“frame”) repeated over and over again, which is not how DJ software works (DJ software would just be silent). It’s a feature, not a bug, but it will catch you out first time you do it!
  • Searching for tracks is harder on CDJs… – Even the faster, improved modern search features with an onscreen Qwerty keyboard on each player are not as easy to use as a laptop and keyboard. It’s doable, but you’ll definitely want to be more organised and have planned playlists in a way you may not be used to doing with DJ software. Plus, of course, chances are you won’t even have all your music with you, as you’ll only have exported what you thought you’d need for the gig to your USB. With CDJs, preparation becomes more important
  • …but the Track Filter functions rock – CDJs have a button that will automatically filter your library against a whole host of parameters, based on the currently playing track. This is unsurpassed in any DJ software, and when you understand its power, is fantastic. A single button press can suggest tons of tracks in a similar genre, close by in BPM, in matching musical keys, even with similar instruments in them, if you’ve prepped your library that way. How to use this is all covered in our free training and the CDJ-3000 manual, but do take time to understand this feature, as it’s a killer!
  • The key sync is actually useful – Most DJ software key sync sucks, often moving the new track that it “syncs” to so high or low a pitch that it sounds ridiculous. Not so on the CDJ-3000 – its key sync uses the fuzzy keymixing method that we’ve pushed at Digital DJ Tips since we discovered and taught it way back in 2014, and the results sound great. Thought keymixing was hard? CDJ-3000s have a one-button solution, and it works great
  • When combined with a mixer such as the Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS2, CDJ-3000s let you preview tracks in your headphones without loading them to a deck – It is a really nicely implemented feature which few DJs know about or use, but it makes playing more ad hoc sets much faster and more fun
  • CDJs are strictly one deck, one channel – DJ software usually lets you control four decks, and most DJ controllers allow you to take advantage of this, using a concept called “layering”, whereby you can switch “layers” to control two channels with one physical controller deck. With CDJs though, if you want to play using four channels, you need four decks. Watch our very own James Hype, or DJs like Carl Cox, to see this in action. Assuming the club you want to play in has multiple decks, this is actually simpler than worrying about switching layers, so should be seen as an advantage (after all, you didn’t have to buy the decks)

And that’s it – these are all the big things, and as long as you’re sensible, and keep your first CDJ sets nice and simple, walking before you try to run, you’ll soon wonder what you were worried about.

Learn to DJ like a pro on ANY gear: The Complete DJ Course

Resources to help you make the transition

I’ve just covered pretty much everything that may trip you up during your first time playing on CDJs. But if you need further help switching from DJ controllers to CDJs, or have any questions, we have many places you can turn to:

  • Underneath the free training tutorial and video manual for the CDJ-3000s, you can ask questions, and I’ll personally help you with your queries – hundreds of other DJs have done just that, so you may well find your question already answered there
  • We have many experienced CDJ DJs in our Global DJ Network Facebook Group, who would love to help you – This is a great place for all kinds of DJ help, not just with CDJs, so if you’re not already a member, go to the group and request to join here
  • If you’re a Digital DJ Tips student, ask in StudentHub – StudentHub is the student-only community for our course owners, where your tutors and other students hang out in private, and therefore it’s an amazing place to get help “out of the public eye”, where you won’t be judged, however silly you think your question may be! (It probably isn’t silly, it’s probably perfectly reasonable)

Finally…

Don’t think you have to do anything special or involved to switch from DJ controllers to CDJs – it’s just like driving a different brand of car, as I said earlier. You’ve already done the hard bit, in learning how to drive! However, using the info in this article, plus carefully watching your FREE two-hour video manual and training tutorial, are definitely smart things to do to make the transition easier.

Finally, if you know you’re not going to be able to just step up to CDJs and spin (honestly, if you were forced to, I wager you could), and you could really do with some hand-on experience, here are three ways to get it:

  • Talk to the club where you want to play, and get some practice time – Most clubs will be happy for you to pop in early on the night or even daytime in the week to get used to their set-up, so don’t be scared to ask
  • Find a DJ practice room or facility near you and hire it by the hour – Many towns have somewhere like this and fees are usually pretty low, and you may even end up getting some free tuition, too!
  • Look at Tribe XR – An intriguing way to get some CDJ-3000 time is to use VR! A VR company called Tribe XR has teamed up with Pioneer DJ to put a full pro CDJ set-up inside a VR headset, so if you have an Oculus unit, or can get access to one, this could be all the extra experience you need before your first DJ set on the real thing

Get the free course

We’ve made a free two-hour Pioneer CDJ-3000 video manual and training tutorial, that contains all you need to know to make the switch from DJ controllers to CDJs. It’s like having a CDJ-3000 expert talk you through every single feature, to give you the confidence to play on CDJs even if you’ve never used them. It’s already helped thousands of DJs to make the leap – come and get it for yourself!

Click here to get your FREE Digital DJ Tips two-hour CDJ training

Want to add something? Something we missed? Want to ask any questions here and now? Share your own experiences? Use the comments below – we’re here to help.

Last updated 10 August, 2022

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