Looking Back at the Handheld DJing Device that Failed to Set the World on Fire
The Pacemaker wasn't great, so why do I think about it so much?
photo via Wiki Commons
Remember the Pacemaker? No, I'm not talking about the metal plate that stopped your Nan from riding the Big One at Blackpool, or the dude that jogs in front of runners and then takes an early bath, stuffing his face with Mars Bars as he cocoons himself in a silver foil poncho. I'm chatting about the world's first portable DJ device, a gadget somewhere in between a proto-smartphone and a Tamagotchi, that's main USP was being able to mix basically anywhere. Laying down jacking house sets in NHS waiting rooms or mixing ragga on the Circle Line was finally made possible. At last there was something to do on long train journeys that didn't involve staring into the abyss, drinking piping hot sort-of coffee, or reading Rush Hour Crush over and over again until Milton Keynes hovered into view, a diamond in the dismal rough of the endless English nowhere.
If you're feeling a little confused at this point, you won't be alone, because, although the website for the gadget has a splash page proclaiming the thing's "not forgotten," it's not exactly been remembered either.
Ten years ago this month, Swedish inventor Jonas Norberg showcased the Pacemaker at Sonar in Barcelona. Norberg told me that he saw it as part of the Scandinavian invasion that was sweeping the world of mainstream dance music at the time, arriving alongside the Swedish House Mafia, and the Stockholm-born Spotify. The Pacemaker was fuelled by what Norberg describes as "the increasingly easy access to content," combined with a growing desire on the consumer side to be more active when it came to music. Which, I think, meant that he realised that, yep, more and more people wanted to become DJs.
The Pacemaker was released the year after, and having been featured in the likes of The New York Times, Wired, and Mixmag, it managed to shift a pretty decent 100,000 units. It is, rather improbably, still being manufactured by the same Korean company a decade on.
Given that nothing's as strange as the recent past, you'd be forgiven for sneering at the Pacemaker, consigning it to the dustbin of near-history, but there was something noble about Norberg's aim. He and the team wanted to create a kind of handheld console for music, a Pioneer-style Playstation Portable that was both "of professional quality" and "used by well-known DJs." So far, so nice, but really, who actually wants to whip out a PSP-sized controller in the club in an attempt to commander the crowd with something that looks better suited to playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Party Edition than the latest Workshop 12"?
A combination of that, and some technical issues—the Pacemaker only had one jogwheel which made actual mixing quite difficult—saw the thing banished to the depths of the YouTube dungeon. Over there in the digital bushes, punters managed to actually get the hang of it, even if DJing with a Pacemaker looks about as satisfying as coding a website with a Casio calculator. It might hearten Norberg to know that somewhere out there in the world there's a core group of gadget-loving hobbyists who happily pay up to $500 to get their sweaty hands on it.
Norberg blames the relative lack of sustained success on bad timing. "The Pacemaker came out just as the world started to change to an iPhone world," he laments. "It just didn't make sense to do your own hardware any more." A few years on from its release, the Pacemaker was discontinued. The team decided to divert their attention towards the emerging world of apps, initially focusing on the Blackberry market. Now their app, just called Pacemaker, is up there with Serato's Pyro software as one of the world's most popular tools for phone-based mixing.
Compared to the physical controller, the app's pretty cutting edge. It lets you mix tracks from Spotify's catalogue, and has a built in AI DJ that helps you choose and mix tracks, which scarily puts the software in a hierarchically higher position than the selector. It's pretty clear to see why it's been a hit, since it lets you mix on your phone, without having to have a separate device, and has aimed itself at the hobbyist rather than the club target market the hardware was trying to reach.
For my sins, I get all misty-eyed whenever I find myself thinking about the Pacemaker. I sit and eat my cottage pie and find the thing's laced with my own tears, which negates the need for additional salt but still leaves a funny taste in my mouth. The thing about the app version is that it just becomes, well, another app. It's next to Sworkit and Candy Crush and the BBC Weather icon, just another thing to tentatively tap at when you're sat on the toilet.
There's something romantic in the obsolescence of its physical sister, and its forgotten moment in history. Sure, it's a pretty wanky thing to try to use at a house party (and much more expensive than a decent controller) and is more likely to give you RSI for your thumbs than a standard piece of kit. Yet phone apps have taken micro-sized mixing to another level, introducing dumb stuff like the robot that helps you choose tracks, an Orwellian nightmare for selectors that want to crate-dig rather than be ruled by a dance music version of Clippy.
Norberg tells me that they've even released new firmware for users, and that the community is "alive and thriving" and backed by a "bunch of hardcore users" that run the shared website. Although poor sales may have led to its discontinuation, it seems that it had a community that other controllers wouldn't inspire, all shared by a collective desire to DJ on the fly and master an insane palette of skills. And if it helped inspire people to get mixing and engage with their favourite thumpers, then that's certainly not a bad thing. Sure, it made people look like a bit silly, and came out at possibly the worst time conceivable. But the Pacemaker, living up to its name, did weave its metal frame into at least a few peoples' hearts.
Even if you couldn't really DJ with it.