All in the mix
How two KTH grads got to the top of the music apps business
A music app that's about the user, Pacemaker aims not just to democratize mixing, but to make technology easier for everybody.
Jonas Norberg once aimed for a career in spacecraft engineering. But time and experience led him to a mission of another sort: to make music technology for everyone.
Today the KTH graduate’s invention, the Pacemaker DJ mixing app for iPad, is one of the most popular music apps in the world, measured by the number of downloads on iTunes. But he and his partners, fellow KTH graduate Daniel Wallner and Stanford University-trained CMO Olof Berglöf are not out to create an app for DJs.
Their idea is an app that creates DJs. “Our mission is to democratize DJ’ing,” Norberg says. “We want to make everyone into a DJ.”
The Pacemaker interface is simple enough for the uninitiated to grasp immediately, a factor which Norberg points out is one of the app’s big differentiating qualities. “That was sort of where we saw this opening: that we can do a modern, touch-native DJ experience. You really have to make it possible for people to get into the app, with no friction,” he says.
Norberg says that with greater access to digital music, people want to have more fun with music. Pacemaker enables them to create more personal playlists, which feature their own sound manipulation, as well as combinations of tracks and artful crossfading. “We want to see the mix as the next generation playlist,” he says.
Pacemaker’s journey hasn’t been an easy one. The iPad app represents what he refers to as the second generation of Pacemaker. The first generation was a firmware concept that went bankrupt. But he and Wallner revived it as a software company in 2012 and designed their first product for the Blackberry Playbook.
Norberg’s career also has its share of false starts and detours. He says that when he graduated from KTH’s master’s programme in mechatronics in 1999, he had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. He wanted to do spacecraft engineering research.
“It was a very different world, 20 years ago,” he says. “Starting your own company wasn’t really on the map for anyone. The number one thing to do was to be employed at a consulting group.”
Norberg spent a few years wrapped up in non-profit projects, such as organizing and managing fencing competitions that were the predecessor of the Challenge Bernadotte Stockholm Grand Prix.
All the while, he was DJ’ing at parties and events. Then, he went to work for the Swedish Space Corporation; but he was soon disillusioned.
“That interest in spacecraft was the reason I studied mechatronics. So, there I was at the Space Corporation – and it wasn’t any fun,” he says. Norberg “fled” into a PhD programme at KTH, but there too, disappointment awaited. His research on safety critical control systems was plagiarized and published under someone else’s name.
“But looking back it was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he says.
Norberg started focus more seriously on how he would make a living, and he organized an informal entrepreneurial think tank called the Idea Agency. He and several friends would meet weekly for dinner, followed by a brainstorm aimed at coming up with ideas they could sell. “Of course we had loads of bad ideas, but also some good ones.”
The Pacemaker DJ system was one of the good ones, and Norberg credits his mechatronics training for the initial concept. A friend had showed him an iPod and Norberg quickly saw that if the device can decode video, it would be able to decode two concurrent Mp3 files, making two-channel audio mixing possible.
“Without the education the idea wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
The idea was realized as a firmware business, which he co-founded in 2005 with Wallner, a graduate of the Electrical Engineering master’s programme at KTH who was also working at the Space Agency. Their fledgling company launched a streamlined handheld device with two flat, round “turntable” surfaces for manipulating sound. The product generated intense interest from the international DJ community, but mainstream interest remained elusive.
It didn’t take long before Nordberg could see the problems with continuing in hardware, but by 2008 it was too late. The CEO who had been appointed to run their company was committed to hardware and Norberg’s efforts to push the product into the software applications market went nowhere.
But when the company folded in 2011, Norberg bought back all of its intellectual property and he and Wallner re-founded Pacemaker with Olaf (LAST NAME). Their aim this time was to use someone else’s hardware to spread their musical mission.
“Music was always present when I was growing up,” Norberg says, explaining that his father was a rock tour manager. “I grew up in a hippy collective.”
He guides a visitor through the garage door entrance on a quiet street in Stockholm’s hip Södermalm neighborhood, and into a labyrinth of connected rooms that are home to Pacemaker.
“This space was where my father ran his business. He was an entrepreneur and he had his hand in a lot of different enterprises. He kept his touring equipment and buses in this garage.”
Now, working in the same space where his father once mixed entrepreneurship and music, Norberg could be said to have arrived full circle, in a way. He also employs his younger brother, Willem Demmers, as head of product, plus two graduates and a doctoral student from KTH, adding to the picture of an innovator whose success has been shaped by his family and university.
But what binds these people is also a core belief in what technology should do for people.
“When we started, we were sick and tired of consumer-unfriendly products,” he says. “Technology should be transparent – you should just enhance the user experience.”
Which makes sense, especially when it comes to music. “A lot of users get great fun in playing with the music. Music is a special thing. It’s one thing that everybody loves.”