Are CDJs Better Than Midi Controllers?

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 4 mins
Last updated 28 March, 2018

Are CDJs better then Midi controllers? As we find out today, it all depends…

Many a new digital DJ asks that question. It pops up on the Digital DJ Tips Forum time and again. After all, goes the argument, CDJs are in all the clubs, and it seems nearly all the top DJs continue to use them rather than controllers. What is it that’s better about CDJs, people ask?

Well, often CDJ DJs (which includes DJs who play using CDs from music on USB) will give you a whole list of reasons why they feel CDJ DJing is the “real thing”, and equally unhelpfully, digital (or I guess more accurately, “software”) DJs will counter with their own list of reasons why they feel “digital” is where it’s at. None of which really helps to answer the question.

So today I thought we’d take a look at what a CD DJ would tell you, then what a digital DJ would tell you – and then try and move the debate forward with some middle-ground truths.

The argument for CDJs…

A CDJ DJ would tell you that CDJs are more flexible (being able to play all music formats, as well as work as Midi controllers for DJ software). They’ll say that as CDJs are in the clubs, that’s what you should learn on. They’ll also likely add that laptops have no place in nightclubs, unlike pro-built CDJs that are made for that environment.

CDJ DJs may also use the opportunity to have a little pop at the way DJs who use software and controllers actually DJ: They’ll say many digital DJs tend to spend more time looking at the screen that the crowd making for boring performances, and that the sync button is “cheating”. They’ll probably round off by saying that software and controllers are bedroom gear – and that “real” DJs in the real world all still use CDJs – and for a reason.

The argument for controllers…

On the other hand, controller DJs will tell you that CDJs are a relic, a stopping-off post between vinyl (which is what they essentially replicate), and the all-digital age. They’ll point out that Midi control in such devices is basically a tack-on, and that if you want to use CDJs to control DJ software, you may as well buy a controller instead, because there’s an awful lot built in to CDJs that a digital DJ really doesn’t need.

Traktor Kontrol F1
The Traktor Kontrol F1 and its Remix Decks – show me a CDJ that can do this, a digital DJ might ask.

Digital DJs will point out that far from cheating, sync is automating a tedious part of DJing (and that as CDJs have a BPM counter on them anyway, unless you don’t look at it, you’re also cheating when beatmatching on CDJs when compared to vinyl).

They’ll say that the only reason CDJs dominate is that most DJs on the scene (who started 10 or 20 years ago) learned on them – and that things are changing fast. They’ll probably end by saying you can do so much more with software than CDJs, and a good laptop will do just fine in a DJ booth (after all, Serato Scratch Live and Traktor Scratch demand a laptop, nobody says that’s not real DJing).

So who’s right? Are CDJs “better” than controllers?

It won’t surprise you to discover that there’s no easy answer. So instead of giving you a definitive yes/no, here are some discussion points:

  1. CDJs are more at home in DJ booths than controllers – No denying that. They are already there, after all. If you can turn up with some CDs or a USB stick and just play, then that’s the “path of least resistance”. Bringing any extra gear into the CD booth is thus by definition less convenient. Nobody kits a DJ booth out with built-in DJ controllers
  2. You can do more on controllers than CDJs – Look at the stuff you can do with Ableton Live, or the new Traktor Kontrol F1/Pro 2.5 with clips, or using video and samples in Serato Scratch Live or ITCH. You need dedicated controllers to power this exciting stuff – CDJs can’t do it, period
  3. Laptop DJs can look boring – If you spend all your time in “email checking mode”, you will look dull. Software and controllers demand that you think about organising your music and mastering your gear so you’re doing what DJs ought to do – playing great music and interacting with the crowd. However, to say that laptop/controller DJing causes boring stage presence is a step too far – there are many exceedingly boring-to-watch (and boring to listen to, come to that) vinyl and CD DJs out there too!
  4. Good DJs should be able to DJ on anything – That means that even if you’re a controller DJ, it pays to be able to DJ on CDJs too, and to respect the fact that this is where DJing came from (and vinyl before that). But likewise, CDJ DJs shouldn’t close themselves off to what’s possible on laptops and controllers
  5. CDJ DJs tend to look down on controller DJs – Sadly this is still often true. But they have short memories. Ten years ago, vinyl DJs behaved in exactly the same way towards CDJ DJs. People often mock what they don’t know. But if you want to DJ with controllers, it’s up to you to educate those who have decided what you’re doing is somehow inferior – and not to get too upset by it
  6. Controllers are undeniably making their way into DJ booths – Digital DJs are finding ways to do this. Using slimline controllers like the Traktor Kontrol X1 or the Allen & Heath Xone:K2 to DJ, digital DJs are realising they can map complex software to do great things, while needing just a tiny space in the DJ booth to set up. By using such controllers with in-house mixers (and maybe even with in-house CDJs as timecode control), such DJs are bringing themselves the “best of both worlds”

It’s clear that this debate will roll on – and with CDJs getting more Midi friendly (look at the new Denon DJ SC3900, for instance) and Midi controllers coming out that are designed to squeeze into DJ booths, the lines will continue to blur. The truth is there’s no simgle, right answer to this question.

As log as we keep our focus on the music, though, there’s no reason why they can’t exist happily alongside each other.

What do you think? Do controller DJs tend to feel inferior against CDJ DJs? Do CDJ DJs look down on controller DJs? Is it important for controller DJs to learn CDJs (and vice versa)? Is DJing better or worse for having a laptop involved rather than a USB drive or a bunch of CDs? Please share your thoughts on this debate in the comments.

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