Pacemaker for iPad review (1)

Link: iTunes | Price: Free plus $9.99/£6.99 in-app purchase

Introduction

Every generation of DJ technology has growing pains that evolve into respected and near legendary standards. With few exceptions, turntables and CD decks have reached their effective zeniths with future generations simply iterating small changes upon established workflows. Controllers have settled, for now, into a simple layout that we are seeing over and over again at various sizes working with various applications. As our NAMM coverage this year shows, we are all simply waiting for the next big thing.

The current landscape being fought over in the DJ world, and across the entire technology realm, is mobile. Costs are being brought down as products are coming out and an increasing number of companies are releasing iPad and iPhone apps into the mix. The people behind the ill-fated Pacemaker have come back with the Pacemaker app for iPad. Originally slated for Blackberry Playbooks, since that platform is all but dead in the water I can only assume that they saw the need to enter a market that people are actually using.

So we saw that the Pacemaker got released, downloaded it and gave it a whirl to see what it was all about.

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Controls

Downloading Pacemaker is free, but you only get access to a very basic DJ setup: each of your two decks can access a scratch simulator, a one beat loop, a one beat move forward and backward, a three band EQ and gain, a single cue point and a simple nudge and tempo change.. This is enough to mess around and see what’s out there, but it is far from enough to actively DJ, even just practicing or demoing mixes. To access anything more you need to shell out $9.99, which gives you access to a full range of loops from 8 beats down to their ‘loop travel’ feature (or a small millisecond loop control kinda like the Bouncer in Traktor), beatjumping from 1 beat to 8 beats in each direction, a hi-lo filter, reverb, echo and loop roll. The reverb has a size meter from 0 to 100%, echo has a beat range from 1 beat to 1/8th beat, and loop roll can range from 4 beats to 1/8th beat.

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This makes Pacemaker a little more robust, as it includes more effects than Traktor DJ, and a few really interesting features. For example, there is an effect kill button which will toggle all of your effects on and off at their current position. So you can tailor your bass, mids and highs to the mix you are making and when the mix is ready fully drop everything in. From that point you can either toggle all of the effects back on, or if you touch any individual effect it will forget where all of your effects are. The targets are clear and the toggle was useful. I rarely found myself toggling effects on and off, but definitely used it to kill an entire effect combination after a mix was done.

Switch modes is easy, and the display is good enough. The “waveform” they provide is akin to the CDJ-1000 display and is useless for any real information beyond volume levels. You can zoom in on a song with a two finger expand swipe, and you can set a single cue point. The expand-swipe was awkward for me, though. I understand that I am expanding the wave form, but my brain makes me think I am zooming, so I always ended up trying to pinch instead. I’m so used to pinching to zoom that it was just what I wanted to do, and I had to do it wrong to remind myself to do it correctly.

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Pressing the cue will start playing, and it won’t stop until you begin moving it. I wish there was a switch or a mode selection where I could set the cue point/seek through the track, and then trigger the cue point. Since I can’t seek through the track while it’s zoomed in, and the zoomed out wave form providing so little information, finding the right place to drop a track required a lot more memory and guesswork than other options. The zoomed in wave form is a little more detailed, but I would have preferred a standard wave form we are all used to. The bezel of my iPad definitely became annoying, though, because if I dragged too far off it would set the cue point and exit the mode instantly, forcing me to go back into the edit mode again.

There were also some strange auto-play settings. When I selected a loop it automatically started playing the song, even if I was preparing it for a mix. I can pitch the tempo up 100%, but I couldn’t easily reset it to 0% and had to either reload the track or cycle it around and around until it came back. That was just weird. I also couldn’t really figure out how Beatjumping worked. There was almost no consistency in how it responded to my commands, unfortunately. I could trigger beat jumps, but there was some sort of quantization going in the background. I’m not really sure what was going on but I couldn’t get it to work the way I wanted it to.

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Loops, however, worked effectively. There is also a loop kill command which lets you turn the loop off, but save its location so you can go back when you want. I would love to see a “state save” or something so I can save the loop and effects, turn them off at once and return any time.

There wasn’t crossfader curve, but there is a relative toggle and a snappy toggle. The curve is a simple slope with the track volume lowering after it passes the halfway mark. With relative toggled off you can jump to any point of the crossfader at a touch, but if it is on you will only be able to move it back and forth smoothly. And Snappy snaps the crossfader in the middle, sort of like a détente.

All in all there are a lot of features here, and the ones that work are really great. The little issues I ran into here and there, though, were frustrating.

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Songs

Library management is handled from two different angles. You can either load your iTunes collection or load tracks from Spotify. A Spotify membership is not required for Pacemaker to run, but it is one of its huge selling points. You can get the full Spotify membership for 30 days for free right now, but if you don’t use it be sure to cancel or they will begin charging you once the trial is over. When you are using Spotify songs you can no longer record natively in the app, but that really doesn’t stop you from using a fancy line-out splitter and running the iPad directly into your computer to record.

I could not find a way to analyze my entire music collection for BPM, and the Spotify collection only gives you BPM after you load a track. You can access your Spotify or iTunes playlists, but you cannot create new ones. Your iTunes playlists are automatically sorted by song name, but I couldn’t find a way to resort them by BPM or artist which was… weird to say the least. Spotify search results couldn’t be sorted at all.

When you load a track it is analyzed and you are given its best guess at a BPM. This was generally accurate, but there was no way to change it. As some songs played it would constantly re-guess the BPM, and while sync’d tracks didn’t fall out of sync it was still strange. It also did very well at correcting for half-time and double-time, so a 75 BPM track wouldn’t be played at double speed when played with a 150 BPM track.

If you sync tracks, though, the non-playing track will automatically start playing which was really strange. But, once you adjust to those idiosyncrasies it was fun to play with.

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A Fun Toy

I have spent a lot of words talking about a simple iPad app that is not really meant for a professional DJ environment. Obviously, DJing on an iPad can become a viable medium in the future, and there are tools out there that can be integrated into a professional set up. Integration with Spotify is really cool, but the use of that integration is not there yet. I understand not being able to natively record your mixes, but really you can just split the output and run it into your computer to record anyway. It’s an additional few dollars in cables and completely circumvents their useless DRM policies (not Pacemaker’s fault, obviously).

I had some really strange interactions with beatjumping that made it practically useless, but the effects made DJing on this thing fun. Not being able to sort my collection was annoying, as was not being able to analyze my files in bulk. Spotify’s tracks should come with BPM information, and I should also be able to manage my playlists from Pacemaker because, well, that just makes sense.

There are a lot of things about this application I like, and being able to show up to a house party with my iPad and some cables and have access to an unlimited selection of music is cool, but the lack of library management was disappointing. Hopefully as this app grows these features will be included, and as other applications inevitably include streaming services they will take these features into consideration to make their integration more powerful.

If you want to easily access tracks to demo mixes it is really fun to have access to Spotify’s whole library, but I don’t think the integration is mature enough for any use case beyond playing in your home.

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