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WHAT’S IT LIKE TO MIX ON DJ GEAR FROM 20 YEARS AGO?




 

Some advice: if you’re in the market for very old DJ equipment, always ask the seller to first show you it works.


Towards the end of last year, I drove to the south coast of England to collect a flight case containing a pair of Pioneer CDJ-100S and a DJM-300-S mixer, an entry-level DJ setup from around two decades ago. By this point I’d given up trying to find the actual first mixer I owned, a Gemini BPM 250 I got back in 2000. The setup I was buying seemed like a good approximation. Like the old Gemini mixer, the DJM-300-S has BPM counters, and I planned to use it with the first turntable I owned, a Citronic PD-1, which I’d just found in the attic. In any case, this would be easier than someone at Pioneer DJ in Japan digging up this ancient equipment and sending it to the UK. That was the theory, anyway.


The seller seemed trustworthy. He worked at a local school, and the gear had apparently been sitting in storage for a couple decades, purchased but basically never used. I don’t need to check it works, I thought, it still smells new. So convinced was I of the gear’s quality that I didn’t check it was working until a couple weeks later, when I actually needed to use it…


The CDJ-100S is a front-loading CD player, the first of its kind, released by Pioneer DJ in 1998. It was an entry-level CD deck targeted to bedroom DJs, but became a popular option for clubs, bars and mobile DJ setups. You feed it a disc and the CDJ eats it, ready for play. It turned out, though, that the first unit I switched on wasn’t hungry. I tried different approaches, from gentle to forceful, but the disc wouldn’t load. Feeling embarrassed for not noticing this earlier, I tried the second CDJ. This time it wouldn’t even turn on. No power. Nothing.


Why was I messing around with Facebook Marketplace sellers and 20-year-old DJ equipment? Nostalgia and curiosity, for sure. What would it actually be like to fire up the old stuff after all this time? But I also wondered if mixing on this gear, even for a couple of hours, could put modern DJing in a fresh light. We so often look forwards when it comes to technology, but I wondered: is there value in sometimes looking backwards?



The problems I was facing weren’t typical of my experience of the CDJ-100S. I calculated that I’d clocked around 3,000 hours on them during a club residency in the early 2000s, and I don’t recall having a single issue, despite the chaotic environment I was working in. The unit was known for robustness. It had a 16-second anti-shock memory, meaning you could literally pick them up and shake them as the CD played back. DJing with CDs themselves, though? Yes, plenty of issues there. And I still think the skipping disc is one of the most obviously humiliating problems a DJ can run into.

The immediate issue with playing CDs in 2022, however, was actually finding someone who had a disc drive. I’d asked several people if they had CD burning facilities (cue jokes and bemusement), before realizing it’s possible to buy a cheap external CD drive. The modern attitude towards CDs was confirmed when I went to send the two faulty CD players (as I described them) to a repair shop. A Post Office employee asked me, smirking: “Are you sending them away to be scrapped?” I was reminded of this when my newly purchased external disc drive wouldn’t burn music files onto the CDRs I’d bought, instead issuing a vague error message.

When it comes to digital DJing, it’s undoubtedly easier these days to prepare for a set. Burning CDs is much more labor intensive than filling a USB stick or creating a playlist. I found myself having to write down track lists on a piece of paper, nervous that my handwriting was too big for the page. Decisions were needed over how many tracks to put onto a CD and whether or not to burn duplicates—what if the track you want is on the CD that’s already playing? It was a classic issue for CD DJs. There was also the question of which burn speed to use (the maxim was always slower the better) and then the anxious wait to see if the disc would read properly when you loaded it at your gig.





By modern standards this was laborious. But it also felt like the process forced me to slow down. It seemed like I got to know what music I was packing a little better, in a way you maybe don’t get with modern equivalents. There’s also theoretically a higher threshold of quality when you play with CDs. USB sticks can contain enormous amounts of music, whereas a CD wallet is much more limited. It’s a bigger commitment to burn something to a disc than it is to drag it into a playlist.


I’m not going to argue that making a music collection on CDs is somehow better. But were we more discerning about the music we carried? It could just be nostalgia, but the hands-on involvement of burning the discs and writing the track lists was also pretty satisfying.


Speaking of which, for the full retro effect I was obviously going to need to play music from the era during my mix. I loosely limited my selections to 2001 and 2002, and generally went for the more popular stuff over the harder up-tempo stuff I liked at the time. I also selected a small bag of records with this in mind. Here are the track lists for the four CDs I burned. (The duplicate of “Contemplation” shows how things sometimes became messy with this method.)



Repairs on the pair of CDJ-100S were looking like they might run into hundreds of pounds. I was advised that parts for discontinued gear are usually either prohibitively expensive compared to second-hand purchase prices, or are simply no longer available. It wasn’t too much of an issue to find another pair, though, perhaps owing to the unit’s ubiquity in the early 2000s. Kou Atsumi, product planner for the CDJ-100S, confirmed that it was, “the longest-selling CDJ. Manufactured and sold for about ten years. Even after the CDJ-1000 was released, the CDJ-100S continued to sell well.”


Once I’d laid out the gear ready for a mix, the difference in the available functionality between then and now immediately stood out. The Digital Jog Break feature on the CDJ-100S, the main thing I had to play around with, is basically three types of simple FX controlled with the jog wheel. Jet is a flanger, Wah is a high/low-pass filter, and Zip is a tempo control that mimics a record. I found that Wah was still quite nice to use as a mixing flourish. And I could imagine Zip being useful if you wanted a vinyl-stop effect.


“It was simple,” Atsumi said, “press a button and turn the jog to change the sound. It was fun. The aim was to make it more enjoyable for amateurs and beginners by eliminating detailed settings.”

Before the mix, I was digging through YouTube for CDJ-100S content and came across a comment that emphasised the reduced functionality of DJ gear back in the day: “No scratch, no BPM counter, no cue point banks, no waveforms, no quantize, no beat indicators, no nuthin’. Just the jog, tempo control and your ears. Good luck! That’s how it was done way back.”




It’s strange to say it, but just focusing on tempo control and my ears made me feel somehow naked or exposed. I’d lost sharpness in the basic skills, and the now-unfamiliar controls only emphasized that further. There also wasn’t a technological solution to fall back on. By today’s standards, the BPM counters on the DJM-300-S, only accurate to whole numbers and often unstable, could only be used as a rough guide. We’re now accustomed to BPM data accurate to 0.1 of a BPM, a massive difference.


A quick comparison between the setup I was using and modern equivalents is also revealing. Consider the XDJ-700 player: it’s got a large touchscreen, hot cues, quantize, sync, slip mode, loop buttons, wide tempo ranges, the now-standard vinyl emulation… Or the all-in-one XDJ-RR, which has many of the features mentioned above plus a range of effects and four dedicated performance buttons for things like hot cues and beat jumps. While not necessarily direct equivalents, the difference between these and the CDJ-100S is still like night and day.


Reacquainting myself with the CDJ-100S’s jog wheels was a challenge. By today’s standards these are fiddly—grey rubber discs four inches in diameter with an indentation to place your finger in. The design is actually taken from the very first Pioneer DJ CD player, the top-loading CDJ-300, which was released back in 1994. In the mix, you use a kind of flicking or winding motion (like using an old telephone) with your index finger, a gentler action than with modern turntable-style jog wheels, some of which also come with adjustable torque settings. There’s really no competition which is nicer in the mix.




My old Citronic PD-1 turntable felt surprisingly robust. Sure, it didn’t have the tank-like sturdiness of the Technics SL1200 or 1210, the undisputed industry standard back in the early 2000s. And with certain records there was a house of cards feeling when manipulating them on the platter, the needle threatening to jump out of the groove. But overall I would have been relatively happy to play a whole set on them.


At one point I mixed in a vinyl copy of Cosmos’s “Take Me With You,” a French-house-style cut by Tom Middleton that blew up in 2002, and went to load a CD containing Tiga’s electro cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses At Night” as the next track. However, the CDJ displayed an error message that transported me back in time as much as any track I played that day. The disc wouldn’t load. (But oddly enough I’ve not been able to recreate the issue since.)




My big retro mix lasted for about two hours and honestly, I was terrible. It might have partly been my mood that day, but it felt like the now unfamiliar demands of the equipment made it difficult to get into a groove. My movements were too heavy handed. I kept overcompensating with the pitch control. There was no fall-back option of using the BPM readouts to at least establish a decent run of mixes. It also made me think about how important context is when we DJ. The old music wasn’t really resonating with me, but I know it could have been different playing with some good friends.


Despite my poor performance the mix had the intended effect: leaving me with plenty to think about.

For instance, while stuffing a USB stick full of music is possible, it might not always be preferable. Reconnecting with CDs made me think that they were actually a decent middle ground between vinyl and modern digital formats. To stress, I’m not cheerleading a CD revival, but there’s maybe something to be said for carrying fewer tracks of a higher quality. People often talk about the benefits of knowing your music more intimately. If you place any stock in this idea, the size of our digital collections and the way we catalogue them might be worth reflecting on.


When we step back from the functionality we now have, notice how plenty of it makes us think about music as parts. Loops, hot cues, sampling and other performance tools are incredible for combining pieces of a track to make something unique. Many DJs flourish using these tools. But even as the technology has moved in this direction, others might find that music treated this way isn’t natural to them. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this without stepping back in time, so to speak.


Meanwhile, the net effect of having such effective tools to help us mix must be that DJ sets feature fewer “mistakes” these days. How people feel about this will probably vary, from indifference in newer DJs to frustration in some older ones. I’ve argued in the past that DJing shouldn’t be easy, but my view has now softened. DJing means so many different things to so many different people that it no longer feels relevant to argue for it having some kind of fixed essence. Some DJs and crowds prefer traditional setups of two decks and a mixer and might welcome the odd mistake; others will be accustomed to flawless combinations of sounds delivered with the assistance of technology. There’s no reason multiple schools of thought can’t coexist.


We should also momentarily celebrate just how good new DJs now have it. When I wanted to learn to mix in the late ‘90s, I wound up mail ordering what turned out to be a photocopied pamphlet that contained incomprehensible diagrams and cost almost £20. (It was funny to discover, after buying the faulty CDJs, that I’m still prone to being scammed.) The access to information and affordable DJ setups these days, especially if we include apps and software, means that many, many more people are getting involved and they have loads more ways to express themselves.