These days DJs stereotypically use either vinyl decks or a laptop. But there is another option. For those unfamiliar, the CDJ is as simple as it sounds: a CD-based DJ setup. CDJs were vital during the era when CDs were the dominant music format, but they also offered other practical differences to traditional DJ setups, and many newer models have evolved to stay current.
For some DJs these are still the prefered option. Others use them as part of a varied gear setup. And others never use them at all. But whatever the case, it is worth taking a look back at the history of this important electronic instrument.
The term CDJ can be used colloquially to mean a CD-based DJ deck made by any manufacturer. Current examples include Denon’s SC2900 and Gemini’s CDJ 700. But the moniker originates as the name of one specific line of products: Pioneer CDJs.
Pioneer introduced the CDJ to the world in 1994 with the launch of the CDJ-500. Even though it was almost a decade after the introduction of the CD format, the device was the first direct attempt to create a CD player for DJs instead of listeners.
It was a simple enough looking machine, taking the form of a large plastic box with an outward-opening CD slot at the top and a disc-sized circular knob underneath, not unlike the volume knobs found on home CD and record players at the time. This knob, though, was actually part of the control system for what turned out to be a highly complex and innovative tool in the evolution of DJing.
For Pioneer, it wasn’t enough for the CDJ to be simply the CD version of a vinyl record turntable. It had to have unique features that would convince even diehard vinyl heads to invest. The best of these features was the ability to alter a track’s tempo without changing its key — a nigh on impossible feat with a conventional DJ setup.
CDJs also had built in loop-creation capabilities, and live displays of how long tracks had lasted, allowing DJs to skip to specific points in tracks without having to use stickers on vinyl discs or their memories. As with vinyl turntables, a typical CDJ setup would consist of two CDJs plugged into a mixer, allowing DJs to continue to practice mixing techniques developed previously.
The CDJ-500 proved a success, and soon enough Pioneer began to release updated and improved models on a yearly basis. Between 1994 and 2004, as many as nine iterations and variations of the Pioneer CDJ were released, including the double-sized CMX-5000 and CMX-3000. At this point, the New York Times declared that “CD’s [have] take[n] over the turntable.”
Just as they did with the added features of the earlier models, manufacturers, including Pioneer, continued to embed their CDJs with new features. The large control knobs eventually became more like vinyl discs, allowing DJs to “scratch” CDs just like they did with their old records.
New buttons and memory card storage allowed DJs to cue up and play sections of tracks and sounds with more ease than ever before. This development moved CDJs towards the realm of a sampler, such as the Akai MPC.
The continuous evolution of the CDJ is what helped it stay relevant in the present day, long after CDs lost their relevance. As mp3 downloads slowly usurped CDs as the dominant music format, CDJs began to accept mp3 files on USB drives and SD cards, giving DJs the ability to use these finely tuned instruments on all of their favourite tracks.
Now, CDJs or mp3-only digital DJ decks dominate booths around the world, all of them drawing influence from the template laid down in 1994 by that bulky box with a knob: the CDJ-500.