Natural Selection?

Pioneer CDJ-900 Media Player

When Pioneer launched an intensive marketing campaign to promote their new CDJs it was always going to be followed by a feeling of anti-climax. The sheer cost of the CDJ-2000 was enough to make many potential buyers close their wallets, especially during these cash-strapped times when disposable income is nothing more than a nostalgic reminiscence. If you don’t have the money then no amount of pleading from big-name DJs can make you buy a pair.

Dissent also came from the Denonites and the Tribe of Numark, who objected to Pioneer’s use of concepts it had ‘borrowed’ from the DNS-3700 and the NS7 and smote the new CDJs, condemning them to the hell-fire before they’d even hit the shops. But Pioneer’s pedigree in the realm of digital DJing is indisputable as is their determination to maintain club dominance, so the provenance of certain features aside, surely the new CDJs must be worth at least some of their ticket price?

The Undeniable Origin of the Species

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

When you look at the CDJ-900 you can see that it’s most definitely an evolution of the outgoing CDJ-800 rather than a radical new design. As expected, the new CDJs get an MEP-esque screen and a push-button rotary control to navigate through the GUI witnessed therein. Unlike the sublime GUI of the MEP-7000, however, the display of the CDJ-900 is a rather dismal monochrome.

One enhancement that has been made to the shell of the CDJ-900 is a pair of recessed carry handles on the side of the unit that lessen the likelihood of an unexpected drop. Other enhancements include the ability to plug USB drives into the CDJ-900 and an internal soundcard with which you can play music from your computer through the CDJ.

The feature list of the CDJ-900 suggests it is the nirvana CDJ, the deck to make all others redundant, but is the list just an idle boast? But does the CDJ-900 actually work and if so, is it worth the money?

Controls

The control surfaces of the CDJ-900 are essentially the same as that of the CDJ-800 it replaces, except for an additional Beat Select button and the replacement of the little used Quick Return button with one marked ‘Slip Mode’.

Anyone that has ever used a CDJ before will be able to walk up to the CDJ-900 and use it immediately. The only thing likely to confuse those who have never used a CDJ before will be the cueing of tracks, but even this doesn’t take that long to work out. As with the CDJ-800, the controls of the CDJ-900 are perfectly spaced, meaning that it’s difficult to hit other controls accidentally. The only criticism I can level at the controls is their black finish, which doesn’t look as classy as the silver controls of the older models and doesn’t provide the necessary contrast. There is something aesthetically jarring about it, but that could just be the sole opinion of this reviewer.

As well as the ubiquitous Play and Cue buttons, the CDJ-900 also features the same Reverse, Search, Tempo and Master Tempo buttons as the CDJ-800.

Pitch Adjust

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

One of the greatest criticisms levelled at the CDJ-800 – and deservedly so – was the woefully inadequate 10% and 100% pitch ranges. Although a 10% pitch range might be great for mixing tracks with widely differing BPMs, the CDJ-800 lacked the 6% pitch range of its bigger brother, the CDJ-1000, which provided the fine pitch resolution necessary for accurate beatmixing. As a result, you’d have to make liberal use of the jog wheel to keep tracks in sync during long blends, taking you away from more creative pursuits.

Presumably having taken notice of the disgruntled masses, Pioneer has equipped the CDJ-900 with the same set of pitch ranges featured on the CDJ-2000 and CDJ-1000: 6%, 10%, 16% and 100%. This makes the CDJ-900 a pleasure to mix on and, unlike the CDJ-800, you don’t feel as if you’re being punished for not buying the more expensive model. Pitch resolutions are 0.02 at 6%, 0.05 for 10%/16% and 0.5% for 100%, as on the CDJ-1000 and CDJ-2000.

A further bonus for CDJ-900 owners is the ability to use the pitch ranges across all media, not just CD audio. This was impossible with the CDJ-1000, which could only offer a maximum pitch range of 16% when playing MP3s, and the CDJ-800, which could only offer a maximum pitch range of 10%.

Of course, making use of the 6% pitch range can be a cause of much consternation if accuracy is your passion, as it can be difficult to select the exact pitch setting you need first time, as described in the MEP-7000 review, although the problem is not as pronounced on the CD900.

The pre-production model of the CDJ-900 featured the same centre detent on the pitch slider as the CDJ-800, whereas the mass production models feature a soft detent – so soft that you might not realise it has one the first few times you use it.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it also featured the Tempo Reset buttons of the CDJs 1000 and 2000 (a feature that resets the pitch to 0), but it doesn’t. This means that returning the pitch to 0 is more time-consuming than it needs to be.

Cueing

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

You cue a track on the CDJ-900 in exactly the same way as you would on any other Pioneer CDJ, by hitting the pause and cue buttons in that order, or by hitting the Loop In button while a track is playing to set a real-time cue. The only difference with the CDJ-900 is that when a track is paused you can scrub through it in half-frame increments rather than the 1 frame increments of older CDJs, which means greater accuracy when cueing.

As with all Pioneer CDJs sporting a ‘vinyl’ mode, pausing a track whilst in CDJ mode will cause the current frame to be stuttered to offer greater accuracy whilst cueing.

Looping

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

On paper the Auto Looper on the CDJ-800 seemed like a great idea, something that really made up for the fact you were missing out on the Hot Cues/Loops of the CDJ-1000, but in reality, it was largely redundant. Not because it was it didn’t loop according to the length you chose, it was actually pretty accurate in that respect, but because the CDJ-800 split each second into 75 frames and used the frame as the unit on which to base its loops. Unfortunately, the frame is too large a unit of measurement for creating loops that can keep in time with another track or metronome.

As an example, let’s say you have an 8 beat loop running on one CDJ-800 and you want to mix out of that loop and fade into a track playing from some other source. The CDJ-800 would be playing a seamless loop, but keeping that loop in time with the incoming track would involve spinning the jog wheel like a man possessed. And this problem wasn’t confined to the Auto Looper, or even the CDJ-800.

The looping systems of the CDJs 800 and 1000 opened the door to a world of creative possibilities but the inaccurate time division slammed it back in your face the moment you tried to step through. If you want to backbeat a track with a loop on a CDJ-800, forget it. Unless you enjoy the sound of two MPCs mating, it’s not going to happen. Thankfully, that’s not the case with the CDJ-900…

To create more accurate loops Pioneer have halved individual frames to reduce one second of audio into 150 units. In practice, this still isn’t accurate enough to create loops as tight as those in Ableton or most DVSs, but it’s damn close. Assuming you can beat match, you need only move the jog wheel occasionally rather than every couple of seconds.

To test the looping abilities of the CDJ-900 I looped portions of two separate tracks with the Auto Looper and beatmatched them. The loops stayed in sync for minutes before I had to use the jog wheel and even then we’re talking about a slight drift in phase rather than the sound of Johnny 5 being disassembled. To make sure that this outcome wasn’t just a fluke I performed the same test with other tracks and got the same results. The tracks had been dragged and dropped onto a USB drive and had not been analysed or quantised in Rekordbox. This is truly astonishing given the utter uselessness of the CDJ-800’s Auto Looper for mixing.

It goes without saying that manually created loops also benefit from this increased accuracy. To create a manual loop you simply press the Loop In button at the point you want the loop to begin and the Loop Out button at the point you want it to finish. You can exit and re-enter the loop by pressing the Reloop/Exit button located to the right of the Loop In and Out buttons.

Again, one of the biggest bones of contention that CDJ-800 owners had with Pioneer was the lack of Loop In adjustment. Whereas owners of the CDJ-1000 could adjust both entry and exit points for loops, CDJ-800 owners had to make do with just exit point adjustment, limiting your performance, so it’s comforting to see the CDJ-900 features both.

Half-frames aside, the biggest impact on the quality of loops created on the new CDJs comes from Rekordbox, a tune organiser produced for Pioneer by the Mixvibes team. When you import tracks into it, Rekordbox analyses and quantises them ready fore export onto a USB drive for subsequent play on a CDJ-900 or 2000 so that you can create you can create perfect loops. A further benefit is that you can create loops and cue points within Rekordbox and export them to a USB drive along with the music.

Better still, if you choose to ignore the Prepare and Perform philosophy and improvise, you can save cues and loops to your memory stick and import that data into Rekordbox. Not only does this aid creativity, it also assists the new CDJs in their role as DVS replacements. No longer must CDJ users look towards Traktor and Serato with jealousy.

There is a method of extending and decreasing the length of loops by pressing one of the search buttons and the Loop Out button, but it’s awkward to engage and only of use if you’re extending a loop as if you want to create a roll effect, use the Auto Looper.

Persistent Cue and Loop Points

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

Anyone familiar with the outgoing CDJ-800 will know that it featured internal storage into which you could save cue points and loops. Although fairly generous, the cue memory was of no use if you performed with equipment other than your own. You could transfer cue information to another CDJ-800, but in reality you were only likely to do this with your own units. There was no way of transferring the cue points and loops set at home to a club system.

The CDJ-900 abandons the idea of internal storage and instead stores cue and loop data on attached USB devices, offering truly portable persistent storage. Multiple cues and loops can be committed to storage for each individual track with red markers on the progress bar to distinguish between the different cue/loop points.

The directional Call buttons below the info screen can be used to cycle between them, whilst management is effected through the Memory and Delete buttons; the Memory button committing cues and loops to memory and the Delete button somewhat predictably removing them from existence. All very simple and all very similar to the CDJ-800, which means that any jocks able to retrieve cue and loop points from a CDJ-800/1000 will know exactly what to do with a CDJ-900.

Unfortunately, one similarity to the CDJ-800 is the length of time taken to access a loop point. Pressing a Call button causes the CDJ to cease playback and it takes what seems an epoch to sort itself out before you can resume playback at the chosen cue point.

In reality, retrieving a cue point takes no time at all, the maximum wait being around seven seconds to retrieve a loop for a CD. If you’re playing tracks off a USB device the wait is a lot less – just under three seconds. The only reason I can offer as to why the retrieval of a cue point from a USB device isn’t near instant is that it would, in a small way, match too closely the purpose of the CDJ-2000’s Hot Cues.

Jog Wheel

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

The CDJ-900 features the exact same jog wheel as that of the CDJ-800MK2, which is no bad thing as in my opinion it’s always been better suited to scratching than that of the CDJ-1000.

When scratching, the feel of the CDJ-900’s jog wheel is more responsive and immediate than that of the CDJ-1000 and it’ll be interesting to see how the CDJ-2000 compares to the 900 in this respect. The scratch sound is more nuanced than that expressed by the CDJ-800 and it adapts well to subtle movements of the platter, the scratch sound of the CDJ-800 being a bit blunt. This extra subtlety is an added benefit of the half-frame described above and when the marketing blurb associated with the CDJ-900 speaks of an improved platter this is to what it refers.

In terms of feel, the platter is identical to that of the CDJ-800, but when you flex the platter the sound produced responds to your hand movements more realistically. Anyone unconvinced of the CDJ-900’s scratch-worthiness should check out Gizmo’s You Tube videos.

One control directly related to scratching is the brake/start dial located to the top right of the platter, a potentially great feature made infuriatingly redundant by having the start and stop speeds controlled by the same dial.

Everyone likes a brake effect, but exactly who wants to break off for a coffee and some light reading whilst you wait for a track to start? If you want to benefit from a slight brake effect you must also suffer the need to give the platter a quick push before you let go of it, meaning that most people will set the dial to instant and leave it. If you simply must use a brake effect then a ghetto method is to select the 100% pitch range and push the pitch slider towards the display.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

In the centre of the platter is the same circular display featured on the CDJ-800 and 1000 that informs users of the position of the ‘stylus’, the position of the last cue point and whether or not your hand is touching the platter.

When Slip Mode is engaged the platter display illuminates a set of red LEDs to let you know the position of the virtual stylus. The benefit of this is that you can scratch or reverse a track for a bar and then release it at exactly the right point for the effect to sound seamless.

The other function of the jog wheel, other than scratching, is to speed up or slow down a track to aid beatmixing. As with other CDJs, you do this by touching the sides of the jog wheel and moving it in one direction or the other.

Slip Mode

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

Just as Pioneer added the Quick Return feature to the CDJ-800 to differentiate it from the CDJ-1000, so Pioneer have added Slip Mode to the CDJ-900.Although, unlike Quick Return, Slip Mode is actually a useful feature.

Slip mode allows you to manipulate the platter, trigger reverse or engage loops, but when you let go of the platter, disengage reverse or exit a loop the track will continue playback at the point it would have been at if it had been left to play uninterrupted. This means that if you scratch or spinback a track you will hear the effect of that action, but when you raise your hand from the platter the track will play from the point at which it would have been had you not touched the platter.

Slip mode is a highly addictive and creative feature when used in conjunction with loops, spinbacks and reverse but is problematic when scratching. The reason being that you often have to raise your hand from the platter when scratching and if you do that in Slip Mode the CDJ will resume playback at a completely different position.

To be honest, Slip Mode is more of a feature for mixers rather than scratchers and an excellent one at that. One application is to spinback a track or hit reverse during the last bar before a breakdown or to interject a currently playing phrase with a loop set earlier.

There is, however, a problem when using Slip Mode to play loops for a long time. When you hit the Exit Loop button the beats may not sync exactly, meaning that if you want to seamlessly return to a track on the first beat of a bar you’re going to be terribly disappointed. Apparently, this problem is due to a limitation of the hardware and although definitely present, it doesn’t seem to be apparent when playing quantised tracks from a USB drive.

Whereas the cynical among us can point to the Quick Return feature as Pioneer’s half-hearted apology to CDJ-800 owners for the omission of a 6% pitch range and Loop In adjustment, Slip Mode confirms the CDJ-900 as a worthy product in its own right. And it will justifiably make CDJ-2000 owners jealous.

The Old Display Screen

Although firmly trapped behind a single pane of transparent plastic, the display is actually composed of two screens – a refined version of the original screen from the CDJ-800 and a new monochrome screen to display track data and waveforms, amongst other things.

The original screen of the CDJ-800 was the cause of much consternation as it lacked even the most rudimentary means of displaying a waveform and reinforced the feeling that you were being punished for not spending the extra on a CDJ-1000. So as not to reinvent the wheel, Pioneer have left it pretty much untouched, except for a number assigned to the player when linked.

Other info shown includes the track time elapsed or remaining, the BPM of the track, the pitch range selected and the pitch at which the track is played. There is also a red progress bar on the info display upon which red notches appear to denote cue points.

The New Display Screen

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to all the Amstrad PCWs when the 20th century came to a close then wonder no more. It appears that Pioneer have bought all surviving units off eBay for a pittance and recycled them into the CDJ-900, so basic is the operating system.

The screen is entirely monochrome and the text it displays hails from an era when anti-aliasing was but a pipe-dream and RAM was a male sheep. Such is the shock when you switch on the CDJ-900 you’d be forgiven for thinking it isn’t part of a new species at all but a genetic throwback. Especially when you consider that the MEP, which is only £140 more expensive and features two DVD-drives, has a screen so exquisite it could easily grace the cover of Yorkshire Vogue.

So you’re probably thinking, after the above rant, that I utterly detest the screen, that I want to plaster it with an impossibly large Nintendo sticker just so I can pass it off as a rather unsuccessful Game & Watch, that I want to dress it up in a piss-stained romper suit and pretend it’s the neighbour’s ugly baby, but you’d be wrong. Once you start spinning tunes any concerns about the suitability of the screen disappear and you realise that it’s entirely fit for purpose. The thought of spending £1100 on something with a display that’d make a pocket calculator laugh still irks, but as a means of searching, selecting and viewing information about tracks, it works.

Navigation between screens is fast and, unlike the outgoing CDJ-800, the CDJ-900 features a waveform. Although it is unforgivably low resolution for a CDJ of this class, it still manages to impart all the information you need to know about a track. Namely, where are the peaks and troughs?

Throughout my time with the CDJ-900, never once did I find myself wishing for the higher-resolution waveform of the CDJ-2000. Until I switched it off. If you can DJ and come from a vinyl background then the waveform of the CDJ-900 is entirely adequate, especially if you’re upgrading from the CDJ-800. The monochrome display and low resolution of the CDJ-900 will most likely be a problem for those that have only ever used software or DVS.

And that’s not a sly dig at New Skool DJs; it’s just that if you’re used to the rich waveforms of modern software then stepping up to the display of the CDJ-900 is akin to a modern lumberjack hacking through a forest with a sharp stone. It might feel like a step too far. Backwards. It won’t assist turntablists as, unlike the CDJ-2000, the waveform imparts no information about cue points. That is left to the progress bar. That said, even the CDJ-2000 will fail to satisfy their needs entirely.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

A better solution for turntablists would be to have virtual stickers on the platter display. Not to be confused with cue markers, which are only updated when you switch from one cue point to another and are always visible, the stickers would only make themselves apparent when you reach a certain point of a song. Stickers could be assigned to tracks within Rekordbox, making good use of the Prepare & Perform philosophy.

This would involve reducing the size of the white playback ring, re-colouring some LEDs and modifying the platter display software, but it would make the 900/2000 series CDJs more accessible to turntablists and would therefore increase sales. Any chance of seeing this on the MK2 units, Pioneer?

The success or failure of the CDJ-900’s display depends on your viewpoint. On the one hand, it works and provides DJs with the information they need most, but on the other you expect a lot more from a 21st Century turntable.

The screen is bordered above and to the left by a series of buttons. The three buttons to the left of the screen select the media from which tracks are to be selected and are marked, ‘CD’, ‘USB’ and ‘LINK’. The buttons above the screen are marked, ‘BROWSE’, ‘TAG LIST, ‘INFO,’ and ‘MENU’. More in-depth information about each screen is offered below.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

BROWSE: True to its name, the Browse screen lets you scroll through attached USB drives and CDs in search of your next track. By default, there is no organisation to the track list other than that which already exists on the CD or USB device. For instance, if you insert a CD with 12 tracks on it you’ll see a flat list of 12 tracks in the Browse window. If you insert a CD or USB drive that has the music broken down into folders you’ll be able to scroll from folder to folder, viewing the tracks within, but that’s it. Thanks to the width of the CDJ-900’s screen, you are treated to a preview of the contents of a folder as you scroll over it.

If you’re viewing tracks exported from Rekordbox then you can view tracks according to specific criteria such as key, artist name or album. Pressing the MENU button whilst in the BROWSE screen displays a further menu from which you can sort the currently displayed list of tracks according to criteria. This means that from your USB drive you could view tracks from ‘Now! 72’ and then sort them according to BPM, key or whatever takes your fancy.

So finding tracks on a CDJ-900 is easy, but the system is not as efficient or comprehensive as that of the MEP, especially when you consider that the latter allows you to use a USB keyboard. Any mobile jocks looking to purchase the CDJ-900 will have to compromise quick searches for improved looping and waveforms.

To the left of the screen are three buttons, marked ‘Link’, ‘USB’ and ‘Disc’. Pressing one of these buttons will cause the Browse screen to reflect the contents of the relevant device.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

TAG LIST: If, as you’re scrolling through your collection, you find a forgotten classic that you want to play later or if you want to create an impromptu playlist, you can press the Tag Track button to the right of the screen and have it added to the Tag List. Tracks can be played back from the Tag List in exactly the same way as from the Browse screen, by selecting it with the rotary controller. The screen will then automatically switch to the Info screen and display a waveform along with artist and track information (if available).

Although it might sound frivolous, the ability to tag tracks for future play is incredibly handy. Nobody truly knows what audience to expect when they turn up to a gig, or what mood they’ll be in, so if you find yourself thinking of a track that’ll tear up the dancefloor and want to make a note of it for later play you can press the ‘TAG TRACK’ button to the right of the screen and it’ll add it to the list.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

INFO: The info screen is the default screen during playback as it shows the waveform of the currently selected track. If you have selected a track that has been analysed in Rekordbox then the waveform will be displayed instantly. If you’ve selected a track from a CD then you will have to wait while the CDJ scans ahead and assembles a waveform, which takes around 1.5 – 2 minutes for a 5 minute track, which is pretty slow, slower even than a CDJ-1000.

Essential information associated with a track, such as the name of the artist, the BPM and the track title, is also displayed on the INFO screen.

MENU: The Menu button can be pressed when in the Browse or Tag List screens to open up a further panel that allows you to sort the contents of a folder according to some criteria, such as key or BPM. Pressing it whilst the Info menu is open will show the currently playing/selected track on a linked CDJ.

However…

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

UTILITY: Pressing the Menu button for around two seconds will display the Utility menu in which you can change the sensitivity of the Autocue function, choose the MIDI channel on which the CDJ should broadcast and decide if you want to view a light show every time the Slip Mode button is pressed, among other things.

If the CDJ-900s upon which you spin belong to you then the settings herein will largely be set and forget. Even if you’re playing on a club’s CDJs, you’d need a good reason to want to change the settings. The utility screen is where you also decide if you want the CDJ to use quantising data from Rekordbox.

Link Function

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

One of the most attractive features of the two new CDJs is the ability to link 2-4 units together to share information between them allowing you to play tracks (or the same track) from one USB drive on any of the connected CDJs. You can use a track located on a remote CDJ as if it was loaded into the one you are using, including full use of any cue or loop points.

The view is also the same. You can navigate through a remote USB drive, search for tracks and add tracks to your Tag List. To view tracks on another CDJ you simply need to press the LINK button to the left of the display screen. Tag Lists can also be shared between CDJs, you just press the TAG LIST button, select a CDJ number and the list for that CDJ appears on your screen.

To avoid confusion when using the Link feature, each CDJ is numbered. The numbering can be set to automatic so that the CDJs can fight for a number among themselves or the numbers can be assigned manually by the user. If you’re connecting 2 CDJ-900s then a single Ethernet cable will suffice, but if you want to connect 3 or 4 then you’ll need to use a switch.

In use the Link function works brilliantly, with no glitches or malfunctions when playing the same track from one source. Although simple, this is a killer feature that singlehandedly allows you to dispense with the laptop if you’re the kind of person that only uses their DVS as a virtual crate.

MIDI

You can’t help but feel that Pioneer have included MIDI on the CDJ-900 just to be safe, to make sure that there is something for everybody, but considering that the CDJs are supposed to be a DVS replacement and are HID compatible with all the major DVSs, it’s a pretty pointless feature. All the major controls are MIDI compatible, such as the transport controls, platter controls and loop buttons and if your software of choice has a MIDI Learn feature then configuring them will be a doddle.

However, why anyone would intentionally spend £2000 on a pair of CDJ-900s to use as MIDI controllers is beyond me.

HID Integration

Although the CDJ-900s are a capable DVS replacement, they are also HID compatible with the major players of the DVS world, which means you can control Serato Scratch and TS Pro with them natively. No time code, no MIDI.

As HID is a bi-directional method of communication DVSs can also make use of the LEDs and display screen of the CDJ-900 to reflect changes in the state of a deck and to display information about the currently loaded track.

So how well do the CDJ-900s fare when linked to TS Duo? Well, all of the essential functions such as the transport controls and looping functions are mapped to Traktor brilliantly. Hitting the Loop In and Out buttons, for instance, causes the buttons to illuminate and they remain illuminated until the you exit the loop, just as they would in normal operation.

Similarly, the Auto Looper works in just the same way as if you were using it with a CD or USB device. You select the length of the beat and Traktor creates a loop of that length. There is one difference, however, when using the Auto Looper and that is that loops ¾ and 1/3 in length are not supported in Traktor, meaning that you can press these buttons all you want and nothing will happen.

In fact, everything works as well as you would hope, except the platter. Specifically, the platter response. The effect is like using time-code with incredibly high latency settings and it feels as if all the life has been sucked out of the player. You can move the platter back and forth to scratch but there is an unforgivably long delay before Traktor does something about it and a sound is heard. Please note that this gripe refers to the scratch platter only, as the pitch bend function of the jog wheel works perfectly.

A further problem when using the CDJ-900 in conjunction with TS Duo is that the central platter display rotates jerkily as if in pain, lacking the purposeful grace that it normally exhibits.

Pioneer have assured me that this is a software issue entirely, so hopefully the problem will be solved in a subsequent Traktor update (currently 1.2.4 – Gizmo), but until then anyone using Traktor to scratch would be advised to use timecode or a scratch CD instead.

So is it fair to conclude that the CDJ-900’s HID mode is an epic failure, then? No. Not at all. As long as you’re not scratching in Traktor – and a good many users don’t – you won’t encounter any problems. Even better, pressing the Memory button on the CDJ creates a hot-cue within Traktor. You can then cycle through the cue points using the CDJ’s Call buttons or, if you’re using the CDJ-2000s, you can trigger them using the Hot Cue buttons. This is revolutionary stuff. Any CDJ-1000 owner will tell you of the frustration of having hot-cue buttons that are useless for DVS use.

Unlike MIDI, HID is an essential feature for the CDJ-900 to possess in this day and age if Pioneer want to maintain club dominance. Pioneer have made it a lot easier for jocks using DVSs to integrate their laptops into the DJ booth, but it’s early days yet and there are still software-based teething problems that need to be ironed out before the HID feature can be considered flawless.

Soundcard

There has been some confusion as to the quality of the soundcard in the CDJ-900 and 2000s. Despite Pioneer’s claims that the soundcards have a bit depth of 24, they can only be used as a 16bit 44.1KHz device until some proper drivers arrive. The soundcard is compatible with WDM and ASIO drivers, and lucky Mac owners have the luxury of using the CDJ’s soundcard without installing any drivers. The sound quality is perfectly acceptable and falls well within the boundaries of ‘better than average, but the regular DAC does offer better sound, as does the Audio 4 or Audio 8 DJ.

Creating an aggregate driver so that two CDJ-900s can be used with Traktor was not as easy as online videos make out, but once you’ve done it you can forget about it. Ditching the Audio x DJ and the accompanying mass of cables in favour of two slim USB cables obviously carries great appeal, although this solution does have one drawback and that is the limited number of USB ports available on the average laptop.

It is, of course, a rare laptop that doesn’t feature the two or more USB ports necessary to attach a pair of CDJ-900s, but in practice most people will need more than that to accommodate their MIDI interfaces, instruments, mice, etc. If you’re using Serato Scratch you’ll need at least one extra for an SLx. You can solve this problem with a USB hub, but it would have to be powered and then you’d have just as much booth-based spaghetti as if you were using an NI soundcard in the first place.

Will it make DJ changeovers any easier? Not really. You can, in theory, plug the USB cable from the unused CDJ into your laptop so that you can mix a track into the outgoing track playing from the laptop of the DJ you’re due to replace. In practice, however, having only one CDJ plugged into your laptop will confuse your DVS, meaning that you’ll have to re-configure it to play through a single CDJ and if the other DJ is running Windows your clubbers will be treated to the familiar, ‘b-dunk’, as you pull the USB cable out of his laptop. If you’re changing over from someone else just accept that life is imperfect and play some tracks from a USB drive whilst you sort your laptop out. Unless you’re the kind of DJ that takes their entire studio into the club with them you’ll benefit from the ability to play tracks from a DVS through the CDJ-900’s soundcard.

Ins and Outs

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

The CDJ-900 features the full complement of outputs that you’d expect on any Pioneer CDJ released in the last couple of years. There are, of course, the ubiquitous RCAs through which audio is transmitted from the regular DAC and the USB soundcard. If you’re lucky enough to own an expensive mixer then chances are you’ll be able to make use of the digital output, which is switchable between 24 and 16 bit in the Utility menu. This is not to be confused with settings for the soundcard.

In keeping with tradition, the CDJ-900 lets you connect a relay cable to a mixer or another CDJ via a 3.5mm jack for fader starts and relay play. On the top panel is a type A USB input into which you can plug your USB drives and on the back panel is a type B USB port for connecting the CDJ’s soundcard to your computer. The RJ45 connector on the back panel is for connecting 2-4 CDJs together with the Link function.

Rekordbox

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

Rekordbox is the beating heart of Pioneer’s Prepare & Perform philosophy. In essence, it operates exactly like iTunes, the Traktor browse screen, or any other track database, except that Rekordbox is emblazoned with a shining blue waveform and CDJ controls. It is not a DVS and although you will, eventually, be able to link up to 4 CDJs to a computer running Rekordbox you don’t need it to perform.

What it does is analyse imported tracks so that any loops you create can be quantised. This means that when you subsequently use the analysed tracks on your CDJ-900 you can create perfect loops. As mentioned earlier, track analysis is the only preparation you need to create loops, although Rekordbox gives you the tools to go further. With it, you can create Hot Cues/Loops for the CDJ-2000 and up to 10 cue/loop points for both CDJs. So if you own CDJ-900s you can still create Hot Cues/Loops with Rekordbox for when you perform on CDJ-2000s elsewhere.

When it comes to track management much of the screen is given over to a table that displays information about the tracks in a collection. The table can be modified so that the columns only contain the information you want to see. If you consider the key of a track to be of greater importance than the name of the album from which it is taken, you can remove the album title, add the Key column and then move the Key column to a prominent position besides the track’s title.

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

A handy feature is the ability to have a colour column that lets you assign a colour to a track. So if you want all of your Electro House tracks to be coloured purple, all of your Hip-Hop to be coloured red and your Rock to be coloured green to help distinguish them visually you can. So that you don’t forget, you can add a caption to a colour to state what it represents. This colour tagging carries over to the CDJs, although as the CDJ-900 is monochrome you have to rely on the caption.

Once you’ve had your tracks analysed you can siphon them off from the vast collection into playlists, just as you can in iTunes. Playlists can then be exported to USB devices. If you already use iTunes to manage your music and can’t be arsed re-inventing the wheel by re-creating playlists, you’ll benefit from the ‘Bridge’ feature, which essentially opens up iTunes within Rekordbox, and from there you can import playlists from iTunes into Rekordbox.

Searching for tracks involves typing a keyword into an iTunes style search field or by opening the category filter pane, which allows you to select criteria on which the tracks shown in the collection pane should be filtered. Searching for a track is ridiculously easy and Rekordbox is quick to deliver. I’m sure there are some for whom the search tools are not comprehensive enough, but for the vast majority of people they will be more than adequate.

As it’s only a music manager, Rekordbox is a slimline piece of software that is fast and responsive in use. Mixvibes have done a good job of keeping things simple, except for the way in which the text within each row is sized. If, for example, a track’s title is deemed too long Rekordbox reduces the font size so that the full title can be displayed, except that in more cases than not it has to be truncated anyway, rendering it unreadable unless you’re in possession of zoom vision and a 28” monitor. There doesn’t seem to be a way to change this setting, which is something that needs to be addressed in subsequent releases.

A lot has been made of Rekordbox’s crash-happiness, but during the test period I was only able to make it crash when I exported tracks that it could not find. All other times it worked flawlessly. Always ensure that you’re using the latest version of Rekordbox, as the version that ships on the CD is useless and will crash repeatedly.

That said, one problem that will introduce Rekordbox to a rusty claw hammer occurs when Windows changes the drive letters of your external drives. This confuses Rekordbox as it can’t find your tracks anymore. Not so bad, users of iTunes might think, except that unlike iTunes you can’t select a folder and say, ‘My library’s in here.’ You have to go through each track, laboriously re-locating each track, one at a time. When this happened to me, with only 288 tracks in the collection, I thought an obscene word and decided I wasn’t going to do it. And I didn’t. Bollocks to that. You might be tempted to just remove everything from your library and start again. The problem with this is that you then lose Rekordbox specific information that must then be re-input. Even if you have a modest library of a hundred tracks this presents an arduous task.

Throughout the test period, Rekordbox came across as a well-designed application that can be used without issue or strife in most circumstances. Perhaps the best thing about Rekordbox’s track management is that it doesn’t prescribe a way of organising your tracks. It gives you the tools to organise your tracks the way you want to.

Summing Up

Pioneer CDJ-900 review

It would have been so easy for Pioneer to take their user base and prestige for granted, simply releasing the old units with a USB port and a facelift. Instead they’ve tackled criticisms of the old units head on and implemented more accurate, reliable loops, integrated USB devices and provided support for users of DVSs.

The time I spent spinning on a pair of linked CDJ-900s was the best time I’ve had DJing in years, live or otherwise. The CDJ-900s gave me all the tools I wanted as a DJ, except Hot Cues, with the added luxury of not having to set up a DVS, burn CDs or suffer the lack of a waveform.

Pioneer have differentiated between the CDJ-900 and CDJ-2000 without sacrificing essential performance features such as the 6% pitch range and full loop adjustment. Whether it was their intention or not, Pioneer have therefore set the CDJ-900 as the benchmark player by which the new CDJs will be judged. You’re welcome to pay more for the extra features offered by the CDJ-2000, but you won’t be getting less by saving your cash and investing in the CDJ-900. There’s also no reason why anyone should want to purchase a CDJ-1000MK3 instead of the CDJ-900, other than price. Would you really prefer hot-cues over accurate looping and Slip Mode?

Pioneer might not have been the first to come up with the concepts used in the CDJ-900, but they’ve certainly packaged them in a slick, well built, fun-packed unit that deserves more of the attention than its bigger brother, the CDJ-2000, currently enjoys.

Ratings

Build Quality
The CDJ-900 is as well built as previous models and will survive the rigours of a club environment. In fact, the better weight distribution and carry handles make it feel better constructed.

Sound Quality
Much improved over the CDJ-800 and CDJ-1000. When scratching the sound behaves more realistically and is less blunt than that heard when scratching on older CDJs.

Features and Implementation
Pioneer have crammed the CDJ-900 with features that cover every Use Case scenario they could come up with. Simplicity has been the key to previous CDJs’ success and the CDJ-900 is no different. Every feature can be accessed and engaged quickly and easily.

Value for Money
You’re going to pay a premium for the Pioneer logo, but the CDJ-900 currently presents better value for money than either the CDJ-2000 or the CDJ-1000. It gives you the essential benefits of the CDJ-2000 for a massive £500 less. That’s the price of a decent mixer.

The Bottom Line

The CDJ-900 should now be considered Pioneer’s standard club CDJ as it offers all the essential performance features of the CDJ-2000 at a much lower price. You have the option of the CDJ-2000 if you want to take advantage of the better features, but you’re not being short-changed or disadvantaged with the CDJ-900.

In these cash-strapped times of recession the CDJ-900 is the best route for those wanting to buy in to Pioneer’s Prepare & Perform philosophy.

Massive thanks to Rik Parkinson of Pioneer for the loan of the review unit and frank discussion of the CDJ-900.