DDJ to CDJs: Practicing For CDJs With A Pioneer DJ Controller

Controllers are an easy way for beginners and bedroom DJs to practice their chops. Even as a DJ’s skill-sets advance, controllers won’t always be at the ready for a gig. Many clubs will insist DJs for the night share a pair of CDJs. Often, touring DJs prefer them over controllers because of the consistency and simplicity in terms of logistics. Plug in the USB and go!

Unfortunately, not everyone can get their hands on a pair of CDJs before their first gig using them. A CDJ setup is easily a couple grand. Based on sales reports, drastically more DJs own a Pioneer DDJ controller. These controllers borrow key design features from their professional siblings and, if you know what to look for, a DJ can use them to practice for CDJs. Read on to learn how to get used to CDJs with a DDJ-RX, DDJ-SX2, and others like them.

Adapted with permission from an original Imgur-based tutorial written by DJ Defractaled on Reddit.  

Change How You View Waveforms

In Serato or Rekordbox DJ, each deck’s waveform are aligned with one another. For controller mixing, this makes it easier to line up two beats. But this luxury isn’t present in a CDJ setup. To get used to CDJ mixing, avoid pre-aligning tracks. DJs using parallel, larger waveforms will probably be used to pre-aligning the physical appearance of a track. Instead of pre-aligning waveforms, use the orange CUE button to perform cue starts on the beat. This will prepare DJs a lot more for the first time playing on CDJs.

The closest view a DJ can get to a CDJ is to set the view to Library. This view gives fewer details than the waveform overview, like a non-Nexus series CDJ (CDJ-2000 and earlier). This will also remove any tempo-matching or beat-matching assistants.

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Limit The Pads

Unless there is access to a device such as the DDJ-SP1 or the venue uses Denon SC5000s, DJs will not have access to the pads found in most controllers. On most CDJs, DJs will be limited to 3 hot cues. It is imperative to learn how to work without access to 8 hot cues.

You can also avoid using the roll pads – but many Pioneer mixers have a similar function, albeit with a different set of controls, in the Beat FX section. Also, avoid relying on Sampler and Slicer performance modes – nothing like those on CDJs yet.

Simplify Your Effects

Almost all effect types found in the basic Rekordbox and Serato DJ stock FX (not expansion packs) can be emulated on newer Pioneer DJ mixers. That being said, you’ll be limited in the range of effects available. Effects such as echo, delay, and distortion effects are standard – but more complex effects (particularly combo effects), are not available. DJs should practice doing transitions without these types of effects.

Some older FX units on mixers might need you to tap out the BPM manually. DJs should be able to set the FX BPM manually if the auto-detection doesn’t work well (on many Pioneer mixers you can hold the TAP button and rotate the TIME knob to adjust the BPM)

Auto Gain Is Not Your Friend

Auto gain should be disabled while practicing for CDJs. Instead, practice adjusting unbalanced tracks using the trim and channel faders accordingly.This will ensure that if when playing on a set of CDJs, a balanced master output level can be maintained throughout the set.

When you play on a CDJ setup, keep an eye on the VU meters on the channels to see what levels you’re really outputting.

Declutter The Library + Display

Ensure that the decks’ BPM display is set to only 1 decimal place. Some CDJ setups might not show any decimal place or only 1 decimal place for the BPM figure. DJs who rely on the printed display for beat matching are to make sure to get used to a bit of inaccuracy. This gives you a good opportunity to practice pushing the outside of your jogwheels a bit more when two tracks’ BPM isn’t perfectly aligned – a wonderful skill to dig into if you you’re still learning manual beatmatching.

Take Off The Training Wheels

Ensure that sync is disabled. DJs need to learn how to beat match and get used to adjusting the pitch manually on a CDJ setup. Some CDJ setups with have this feature, in which case, feel free to make use of it. However, not all venues will be using the latest Nexus gear. Next, set the Quantize value to 1/16 Beat – or disable it! Not all features on a CDJ (such as the loop cutter) will be quantized on older units. Instead, practice getting beats as close as possible on the first press.

Bonus Tips!

  • Slip Mode – Don’t get used to slip mode… this won’t be available on a lot of CDJs.
  • Vinyl vs CDJ Mode – Learn how these two modes differ on a CDJs. They have a big impact on the way that the jogwheel and needle search bar function. Most DJs will want to use Vinyl mode unless they’re used to older models of CDJ.
  • See the Gear in Action – Watch videos of people using CDJs and tutorials on them. Read the manual for the CDJ to get help straight from the source – it might be dry, but you’ll learn a lot. Christian Jackson has an excellent tutorial series on YouTube.
  • Learn the Differences – CDJs have evolved a lot over the years, and the CDJs in each club will not always be the same model. Instead, plan on having access to a minimal number of features and make use of the more advanced features when available.
  • Venue Equipment – Not every venue keeps their CDJs and mixers in the best condition. Sometimes, the equipment might get broken by the previous DJ. It is best to be flexible in some cases with some features that could be missing. A common example might be a channel on the mixer being broken so instead of mixing between channel 1 & 2, mix between channel 1 & 3 (this could also be the case depending on their specific configuration). Another feature that is occasionally broken (or missing if not connected) is the LINK functionality, so always bring a second copy of your USB drive just in case.
  • Prepare Your Tracks – Make sure all the tracks have been fully prepared and hot cue’d in Rekordbox and exported to a USB before each set. The importance of preparation cannot be stressed enough. It is also highly suggested to make sure to have done this properly before playing on a CDJ setup.

CDJs are arguably the most used pieces of equipment in clubs around the world. Learning them when coming from a controller is vital to ensuring success with those first gigs. Hopefully, this tutorial helps DJs make use of their current DDJ controllers to prepare for getting behind a Pioneer setup.

Author’s note: this article was adapted with permission from an Imgur-based tutorial by djdefractaled on Reddit’s /r/DJs. 

Do you have advice for preparing for your first CDJ gig?
Let us know in the comments below so others can learn from you too!
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Comments (19)
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  • lardarz

    Wtf? I thought this was aimed at people moving from vinyl to digital. I am apparently 20 years out of date. My tip – use your ears, not your mouse.

  • Albatross

    It sounds like they’re suggesting that you abandon the software based approach with the controller the first time you step into a club booth.

    I think it’s way smarter to bring your computer with you and hook up to a DVS system that you’re used to. If you need the pads for looping and cues, get dicers or Reloop Neons so that you can make a simple transition.

    There’s no reason to change everything you learn and practice on when you take your first gigs.

  • Dane Zen

    So, what happened to mixing music with your ears not your eyes? Smh

  • Be

    How is dealing with all these limitations is easier than transporting and setting up a controller that you’re familiar with?

    • Bc8410

      I think part of the point is that some clubs won’t let you hook up your controller–they’ll make you use their setup of two CDJs and a mixer.

      • Be

        I for one wouldn’t play somewhere that doesn’t let performers bring what they need to perform. Would any venue tell a guitarist they can’t bring their guitar because they have to use the venue’s? Why should DJs be any different?

        • Bc8410

          Fair point. But, just to be a devil’s advocate, back in the days when I was playing in a band we did have to play venues that had a house drum kit. To your point, though, drummers were never happy about it.

  • Kevin Basher

    That’s what the “club standard” is all about:
    The feature set of your $99 software except most of its main features (that the software had for years, btw) for only $6,500.

    Hopefully, the Denons will gain acceptance, soon.

    • deejdave

      Do you honestly think they will at all? Aside from the marketing etc. I mean. I am not saying the won’t I just have my doubts.

      • Kevin Basher

        It’s all about good marketing, getting the right (and well-known) DJs to use and promote their stuff and giving away free units to certain clubs. Denon seems to have a good strategy, now, but they’ll need a long wind to re-establish themselves as an aspirational brand that the bedroom DJs will buy.
        The prime series are definitely kicking Pioneer’s ass real hard in terms of features, quality and usability.

    • Viikk

      In other words, If you want to practice your mix for the “standard” Pioneer CDJ Setup, you have to deny all the cool features of your controller+software combo.

      IMO, It’s the reason I don’t have “sensations” while mixing with a NXS setup… (No effects per deck, looping system is not so “easy” to handle, less creativity…)
      Only beat matching and sending a track to another with the clicky ORANGE CUE is not so fun… (for me)

      Yes you can do more with 4 CDJs, but this setup is not commun.

      • Kevin Basher

        The CDJ jogs are fun to mix with.
        But the whole approach feels absolutely outdated – and expensive.

        • Viikk

          Agreed 🙂

          I prefer to mix Vinyl or DVS in relative mode if i just have tools to beatmatch.

          I had to occasion to try the Denon Prime series, that was pretty fun to have new “tools” to play. ( Still expensive to a “home” use, vs a controller)

  • Zafer Sernikli

    One other thing that was confusing to me was the track menu. After getting used to the Traktor layout and tagging my tracks on comment columns according to their mood, places to be played etc. (Same, actually even stronger at Rekordbox DJ), not having the same search and filter capability made me understand the importance of playlists. Use playlists instead of having all your tracks at the collection and finding them by tag search.

  • MiQ

    Not seeing any optipn to adjust decimal places on BPM display. Is this something new in Rekordbox 5 ?

    • Spacecamp / Dan

      I think this is only an option in Serato DJ, not RBDJ

    • Roger Andre

      Does Virtual DJ have the ability to prep playlists as well? I jumped straight from records to it and I love it to bits.

  • Sean Fernandez

    Nice article. I would also suggest leaving the pitch fader on the smallest range. It gives you much finer resolution to make the mix perfect.