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Why We Banned Controllers in the DJ Booth (And Love It)

In February of this year, we made the executive decision that no controller DJ's would be allowed at Pariah Reign events, requiring every local artist to play on a setup with industry-standard Pioneer CDJ-2000 Nexuses and a DJM-900 Nexus.

We got a lot of flak for this. Our CDJ policy was massively controversial as we first announced it. Many locals felt that they were being snubbed out of opportunities because they couldn't afford the gear (to which we responded with moderately-priced CDJ classes). Some locals felt that we promoters could not tell artists what to do and that we were overstepping our bounds. We've been accused of being elitist and unsympathetic to the struggle of artists.

Here is the reasoning on why exactly we chose to make this policy, and why we have been enjoying every minute of it.


Controllers Ain’t Sh*t

I’ll say it again it again for those in the back: your controller isn’t anything special.

I get why DJ's stand by their controllers. It's like their first car. They learned how to play on it on it. They discovered the thrill of performing through it. They've discovered the features inside and out to the point where that controller is a native extension of their being.

They're good at playing on it, and in fact, if they tried playing on something else, perhaps they will come off as not being as a good of a DJ as they think they are. It would be embarrassing to try to DJ on anything else.

But here's the reality: if you are just mixing decks together, you literally have zero excuses on why you shouldn't play on CDJ's.

I know that the CDJ setup isn't perfect. There are features that I miss from my first controller that aren't even on the new CDJ 2000-NXS2's.

I also know that there are times and places for controllers. Open-format club or special event DJ's who play long sets and take requests need the flexibility of a laptop in the booth. CDJ's can be too expensive and impractical to drag around to house parties and renegade shows.

I additionally know that there are incredible performers who use controllers and other unorthodox technology to create killer live electronic music. I drove six hours to see Porter Robinson Live for the second time, caught a broken drumstick from KJ Sawka, and witnessed insane techno sets from Traktor remix decks. I've seen Purity Ring play mallets on custom crystal MIDI chimes, Clozee completely groove over a small club with a sampler pad and a Traktor F1, and hometown favorites Street Fever and Magic Sword jam out on Ableton controllers, vintage synths, and light-up guitars.

But chances are you, as a controllerist, are not them. You're likely not running custom Ableton sets, playing live instruments, or doing cool MIDI work. Instead, you are smashing dubstep into psytrance on two decks and playing for 60 minutes, not 6 hours.

Surprisingly, you don't have a right to your multi-colored buttons and can learn to play the same set on industry standard gear if you choose to step outside of your comfort zone.

Avoiding Technical Errors

While CDJ's have their problems from time-to-time, they pale in comparison to the issues I've seen with controllers when brought on stage.

Controllers are useful because they are relatively cheap and portable. This means that controllers get taken to places where they can be used and abused. It's not uncommon to see a Pioneer DDJ-SX with broken line fader knobs or a channel that doesn't work because a drink was spilled on it at a house party.

Since CDJ's are expensive, they usually get treated a lot better. They often never leave the sight of the venue or the AV rental company who owns them and are contracted and insured against damage. During performances, CDJ's are usually under the watch of a hawk-eyed stage manager who can catch an artist setting a drink next to the decks or prevent other bad things from happening to them.

I've seen plenty of controllers fritz out on stage, both for physical damage done to the controller and software errors on the laptop.

For example, back in 2014, my Traktor Pro software would hard freeze at around 35 minutes into a set if I didn't restart my MacBook entirely before opening up Traktor. I wouldn't always remember to restart my laptop, and yes, had to cut sound in front of hundreds of people and play a song off of my iPhone until I could restart my MacBook and return to playing.

Similar errors with other DJ programs (not to mention laptop battery, charging, and USB issues) can lead to multiple failure points during a set where none needs to be.

Lastly, CDJ's are expensive because they truly are superior sound-wise. The soundcard in a $2500 CDJ unit far exceeds that of a $250 Serato controller, providing better quality audio to the speakers and audience. Are you okay with your music not sounding as good as it can be? I'm not.

Simplifying the Process

Murphy's Law states that every time you introduce a new variable to a situation, you increase the chances of something going wrong.

Being an event promoter feels more like being a firefighter than a professional party host at times. There are always problems popping up during shows that usually demand attention. The last thing a promoter needs is something that can create an additional point of failure.

Switching out DJ gear while music is playing is not always straightforward as you would think. I've had sound cut out during DJ changeovers for as many reasons as you can list. I've had drunk artists unplug the wrong cables. I've had power strips fail after being overloaded with too many MacBooks and giant controllers. I've had a dozen people trying to plug things in the booth, messing up the cables out from the mixer to the mains.

Imagine if you could avoid all of that, plus the inconvenience of working in the dark and around a DJ who is trying to their thing by changing one simple thing: the gear that everyone plays on.

But wait! Aren't shows all about the artists? Shouldn't artists get the most benefit because the fans are here to see them play? Shouldn't the promoter then cater to each individual artist's needs because they are what is most important?

Wrong. The guests come first.

Guests come to shows for an experience of good music from good artists. The artist, venue, and promoter are all in service of the guests by creating a good environment for them to interact in.

And the most surefire way to break that environment is to have the music stop because of technical errors that can be avoided by consolidating DJ gear into one package.

Now let me clarify: creating a good environment for guests includes having good artists. Without good talent treated right, a promoter is sure to fail. However catering to the need of every DJ who steps on stage shouldn't the topmost concern of any promoter. While promoters should create as deep of a relationship as they can with their artists, that does not mean that promoters are responsible for meeting an artist's every demand, especially when those artists might be grateful for being told no.

Pushing Artists' Potential

I've never heard an adult riding a bicycle say, "Damn, I wish I could go back to training wheels." Then again, I've never asked. But even if I did, I'm sure I wouldn't hear that.

But here's something I have heard: "Thank you for pushing me out of my comfort level."

Growth is painful. When a hermit crab grows too large for its shell and needs to find another, it has to leave its protection and safety to get from their cramped space to where they can further grow. They leave their hard shells, exposing their vulnerable, soft bodies to countless underwater predators. But if they don't leave their currently small shell, they may never grow again, or worse--die.

This policy may sound anthithetical to our mission at Pariah Reign--bringing people from the outside and helping them get to the top. However, this is not the case.

We believe that being able to perform on CDJ's is one of the most marketable DJ skills out there, considering that most reputable promoters and venues anywhere in the world will have Pioneer CDJ's for use. After learning to play on CDJ's, artists can approach their bookings, especially traveling gigs, with more ease. CDJ artists can go anywhere in the globe and play a set with just a flash drive.

We believe that CDJ performance is such a marketable skill that we're willing to dish out a little tough love to give artists the extra push to learn. We believe that being familiar with industry-standard gear is so important we're willing to take criticism from outsiders for being elitist, anti-artist, or discriminatory because we know how it positively affects the artists who step up and learn the decks.

It's always uncomfortable stepping outside current capabilities, so we created this policy to give the kick needed to gain an additional skill. Requiring local artists to play on CDJ's has given them the push to try something new that they otherwise would not do. By stripping away the comfort zone, artists have to challenge themselves. If we did not ban controllers they would likely never step out of what they know and onto a new level.

This CDJ policy also has another edge: it separates the people who are serious about growing as artist from those complacent enough to stay where they are at.

If you want to achieve something similar to what someone has already done, you should want to be like them in the ways you can. If you truly want to be a word-travelling festival-performing DJ, why wouldn't you learn the same equipment that the people who are already living your dream play on?

While CDJ's are expensive to own and can be pricey to rent, the most savvy artists will find a way to prepare for their first CDJ set, whether that be hustling a little extra change for a rental, playing on a friend's XDJ setup, or consuming hours of YouTube tutorials and videos (for free). At Pariah Reign, we're all about growth and testing out our skills, even when it is uncomfortable. If a local DJ is salty about having to be pushed out of their boundaries, then there is a high chance we wouldn't see eye-to-eye on other values and couldn't function as a team.

Plus, flash drives are cheaper than controllers.

But here's the best part about the artists who do go out on a limb: they always seem to succeed. In our 6 months of regular events under this policy, we have yet to see a bad first set on CDJ's. We've had DJ's come straight from their controllers without ever touching CDJ's absolutely murder the dance floor because they are good DJ's no matter what gear they play on. Everybody who has tried it out has killed it. Not only did they do so well, they were ecstatic that somebody pushed them to realize their potential. Now after playing one of our shows that artist can literally show up to any reputable venue anywhere and say, "Yeah, I can hang on your decks."

To be honest, I wish a promoter in my town did this back when I was getting into DJing. I could have learned how to perform on this gear a long time ago. CDJ's weren't available then like they are now, making it economically impractical for promoters to provide them for local artists. It would boosted my confidence as an artist, and allowed me to play better at the most important sets of my life, instead of having to set up a controller next to the headliner's decks or fumble my way through a pair of older CDJ-2000's at Space Yacht.

A final note: If an artist can prove immense coolness and technicality in their set by using controllers, samplers, MIDI keyboards, drum pads, etc.--we're 100% down. However most controller artists are not this, and thus the policy remains.


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