Dual CD players: A different way to DJ

We dust off the CD players that created the very first wave of digital DJs, looking back on the workflow and features of a class of products that were ubiquitous in the '90s and '00s.

In August 2022, we posted a photo that was a blast from the past for some people. For others, it would have been baffling.

Here was a DJ setup arranged vertically. It was screwed into studio racking, and if you looked closely there was a player split in two by a mixer. And what was that player, exactly? The pitch faders and play/cue buttons might have looked familiar, but those slots at the bottom, were they for CDs?

In response to our hypothetical reader, we’re looking at the DJM-3000 mixer and the CMX-3000, a dual “rack mountable” CD player that was the second in Pioneer DJ’s line of such products. 

During the 1990s, this type of CD player created the first wave of digital DJs and was a widespread alternative to playing vinyl. They were most commonly used in smaller venues and by mobile DJs, but they could conceivably have been found in most DJing environments. 

“Dual CD players were pretty prolific in the mobile/wedding DJ market back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s,” said Martin Dockree, Pioneer DJ / AlphaTheta’s sales manager for the UK, Ireland and Eastern Europe. “Mobile DJs were the early adapters to compact disc media due to CD portability compared to boxes of vinyl. The dual CD player added to that ‘travelling light’ practicality, as opposed to the underground club DJs who were sticking with their vinyl, mainly because their genre of music wasn’t getting released on CD, and burning vinyl to CD wasn’t an easy option at that time.”

To give you an idea of the prevalence of rackmount CD players, the DJ equipment archive site DJ Resource lists 20 companies and 191 different products that were produced in the rackmount category.    

Dual CD players were also flexible. The design, with the two parts of the product attached by a long cable, meant that they could be housed in a flight case along with a 19-inch mixer and an amp; arranged vertically, as shown above; placed directly onto a shelf; set up on a table; stacked with the two parts atop one another—or a combination of these. Back in the day, you might have spotted a DJ on dual CD players at the end of a bar, with their back to the crowd. Or you might have leaned into a club booth and seen them mounted above a mixer. There was an open-ended quality to dual CD players that we don’t really have an equivalent of nowadays.   

All of which is to say that, for a long time, rackmount CD players were a big deal in the DJ world.   

With this in mind, we decided to dust off our original dual CD player, the CMX-5000, which was the predecessor to the more advanced CMX-3000. (You read that right: the later, updated version has the lower product-code number.) We wanted to see how it felt in the mix, while exploring the history of rackmounted CD players, a class of products that required DJs to play in a pretty different way from the one we’re now accustomed to.

By the time CMX-5000 hit the market in 2000, Pioneer DJ had already released a few products in its tabletop CDJ range. The professional grade CDJ-700 and the more entry-level CDJ-100S both shaped the design of the CMX-5000, with the inclusion of loop buttons, Master Tempo and jog wheels. However, there were some features that diverged substantially from the CDJ, features that may seem strange from a modern perspective. 

Auto Mix gave DJs a range of methods for automatically mixing and programming tracks. For example, “break” performed a two-second, turntable-style wind-down between tracks, while “crossfade” offered an actual beatmatched mix of 0 to 14 seconds (so long as the two tracks were within +/- 16% BPM and had a clear, consistent beat at the beginning). This was a “world’s first” feature, but it didn’t really catch on. DJs ultimately wanted to mix tracks themselves, and for people like venue managers, it was more convenient to play a mix CD rather than program a block of music. 

It’s clear that the technical and operational concerns of DJs were much different back then, and the CMX-5000 had features that looked to address them. CDs were said to load three seconds faster than with other players on the market, allowing DJs to get their tracks cued up more quickly. The CMX-5000 was compatible with CD-R and CDR-W, formats that were rewritable, like USB. DJ Hot Toddy, who presented the promotional video, also demonstrated how, with eight seconds of memory buffer, “There’s no way you can skip this unit.” He banged on the thing to underline his point. DJs back then needed to be convinced that the vibrations of loud music wouldn’t skip their discs; due to the use of anti-skip technology lifted from Pioneer’s car stereo department, the line of DJ CD players were especially robust in this respect.   

“I was a vinyl DJ and as technology progressed I was delighted when we were able to use the CD format,” said Al Mayfield, a London-based DJ who’s been gigging since the 1970s. “The initial switch from vinyl was to a twin CD machine that had drawers you placed the CD in and was fed back into the machine. Problem was, I would constantly bang the drawer or anyone passing in the DJ box would, and they would never be right again. The machine wouldn’t read all CDRs and tended to jump. And then along came the CMX-5000. It was quite revolutionary, these machines took out all of those challenges in one sweep, and were a joy to work on.” 

By the 1990s, CDs were the dominant format in mainstream music, which made it natural that DJ gear manufacturers would respond. Although designed with broadcasters in mind, in 1986 Technics released the SL-P1200, a chunky unit with pitch controls designed as a counterpart to its industry standard turntable, the SL-1200. In 1990, Numark rolled out the first dual CD player, the CD5020, which hit on the idea of separating the control panel from the loading trays into two separate units. (It also made an attempt at a track sync button.) But the CD5020 had issues with stability, which left the door open for Denon’s DN-2000F, the first dual CD player with pitch bend, which made it the first industry standard in this class of products.  

“For the underground club DJ, all they had to take to a gig was their record box and a pair of headphones as the club already had a pair of turntables and a mixer permanently installed,” Martin said. “Whereas the mobile DJ had to take everything from gig to gig—turntables, lights, amps, speakers etc. So for them, playing commercial tracks all readily available on CD lightened the load vs vinyl—as did a convenient dual CD player that fitted neatly into a 19-inch rackmount flight case along with a 19-inch rackmount mixer and amp. 

“The early dual CD players were pretty basic as far as features were concerned. Some of them not even offering pitch bend or pitch fader options, but again, this didn’t matter too much to the mobile DJ as most of them weren’t beat matching as the styles and tempos of music they were playing were too varied anyway. So although these were important features for the club DJ, they weren’t really missed by the wedding DJ fraternity.”

A couple of years ago we asked, What’s it like to mix on DJ gear from 20 years ago? and assembled a setup—two CDJ-100S, a DJM-300 mixer, and a Citronic PD-1, an entry level turntable—from around the time that the CMX-5000 came out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mixing with the CMX-5000 brought up lots of the same fond memories and technical limitations as that old CDJ setup. 

Firstly, when it comes to beatmatching, you need to bring your A game to the old gear. Equipment from this time period is simply less accurate and nuanced than we get these days. The CMX-5000 featured what was, for the time, a new +/- 6% pitch option—however, this just meant more spacious movements of the fader in increments of 0.1, rather than finer adjustments in pitch. Contrast that with the 0.02 increments of today’s 6% pitch faders, and you can see how the older gear required DJs to more actively ride the mix to keep tracks in time.

Ditto the jog wheels. Move them forwards or backwards any amount and you get the same substantial pitch bend, making fine tuning a mix a challenge, especially if you’re already “live” with the fader up and playing something with vocals or sustained instrument parts like strings. 

Interestingly, after requests from DJs, the updated CMX-3000 came with pitch bend buttons. This wasn’t a function ever included on any model of CDJ, but it was clear that DJs who worked with dual rackmount CD players in the ‘90s had grown accustomed to this workflow. This feature in particular was amusing to look back on. Instead of the up to 8 inches of torque-adjustable platters we get these days, DJs back then were manipulating tracks with tiny + and – buttons.

The Auto Mix functions of CMX-5000 were also a fun reflection of the time. With the “crossfade” option selected, you can hear the CMX-5000 perform a (honestly not too bad) beatmatched mix, and then fade out the outgoing track without you even touching anything. The sheer novelty of this back in 2000 may have convinced some DJs to do all of the necessary knob twisting and button pushing—but there’s no way this type of UX would fly today.  

Tellingly, the CMX-3000, released a year later, didn’t include Auto Mix features. Its main selling points were more aligned with the CDJ-1000, which also hit the market in 2001, and had quickly become a game-changer in the DJ world. They both had a vinyl scratch mode, the feature from the CDJ-1000 that was getting people talking. The CMX-3000’s onboard memory let you save three cue or loop points on up to 1000 CDs, which was handy alongside its new Hot Cue functions. There was also a wave display that gave you a visual representation of a track’s landscape, and a text display that let you know the currently playing track. In one form or another, these were features that would become Pioneer DJ standards from then on.  

The CMX had a long run, staying in production from 2001 to 2011, but gradually across that decade the ubiquity of dual CD players began to wane. As new products entered the market, the design of dual players came to seem cramped and fiddly, with their small jog wheels and buttons and limited feature set. “Even in the commercial environment, the tabletop-player revolution, galvanised by the CDJ-1000, gradually took over from the dual CD player,” said Martin. “Commercial club DJs became more skilfully adventurous to be regarded as highly as their underground counterparts.”  

The transition away from CD decks towards mp3s and controllers is evident in the small array of other rackmount products Pioneer DJ released. The MEP-7000 featured a 4.3-inch colour display, two USB inputs, and could control DJS, the software forerunner to rekordbox. The SEP-C1 (software entertainment controller) had exactly the same features as the MEP-7000 but was purely a controller for DJS. “By this point laptop controllers and DVS systems had kicked in for the digital DJ and the MEP, as good as it was, was destined to fail in the market,” said Martin. Only available in Africa, Asia and South America, the MEP-4000 was a more simple dual CD offering that, when production stopped in 2016, became the final product in the rackmount category. 

The CMX-5000 and CMX-3000 will never be the most famous or flashy products in the history of Pioneer DJ. But they were part of an important chapter in the evolution of DJ gear. For more than a decade, they provided a dependable solution for DJs like Martin. “The CMX-5000 was a well-loved piece of kit installed in many second rooms, which was my domain in those days,” he said. “There wasn’t much space in the DJ box, some DJs still preferred to use vinyl or both formats, so the rackmount CMX-5000 twin CD player was ideal. I happily used it for many years.” 

Indeed, the Facebook post we mentioned at the outset received 350 comments, with many DJs reflecting fondly on their time using the CMX-5000.  

“It was sooooo much fun to use when it came out,” said Dale Rokndj Hurlebaus. 

“It brings back memories…” Max Kaphengst said. “Was my first player with which I played.”

“I still have the CMX3000,” said Jay Manu. “Best thing i ve ever bought..21 years ago I think.”

Words: Ryan Keeling