Two’s Company — Top Ten Synth-Drum Duos (A ‘Notes From The Keybed’ Special)

If you’re a regular TBO reader, you’ll know that two of my favourite things in this world are two-piece bands and badass synthesiser-driven music. In my opinion, the limitations of a duo seem to swell the creative juices of such units; without the safety net of a larger band, it takes a lot of thought, energy and downright determination to present a wall of sound greater than the sum of its parts. So for this special feature I’ve decided to round up a list of my favourite synth and drum duos who push the boundaries of musical style and technology to make a big noise that will still fit in the back of a Smart Car after the gig. Crossing a range of genres from electronica to indie rock, each band’s approach is distinct from the others and demonstrates the huge potential of this deceptively unrestrictive line-up. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top ten synth-drum duos…

Shy Child

The original keytar and drumkit duo of frontman Pete Cafarella and tub-thumper Nate Smith, New York’s Shy Child emerged from the new rave scene that also gave birth to the likes of Klaxons and New Young Pony Club. In the mid-noughties this pair cracked out indie rock songs over pounding dance beats and distorted synth hooks, whilst managing the seemingly impossible task of making the keytar cool. Releasing two full-length albums before breaking the mainstream with 2007’s Noise Won’t Stop, which featured singles ‘Drop The Phone’ and ‘Summer’ as well as the title track, the two-piece were equally at home on rock festival stages and indie-disco clubs.

Matt and Kim

Matt and Kim are the ultimate boy-girl band for a myriad of reasons. Not only are they a legit couple, they make cutesy pop songs that are utterly irresistible whether you are five or thirty-five. Matt plays keys, Kim plays drums, and between them they create a two-piece symphony of singable choruses and danceable beats. A quick scout of YouTube reveals them to also be contenders to the throne of ‘most fun live band ever’, as this video for recent single ‘Get It’ demonstrates…


Taking their name from the cult arcade game, Galaxians make music as retro as their moniker suggests. The Leeds two-piece create party-starting live disco inspired by classic New York boogie and funk. Delivered live with authentic analogue keyboards and raw drum grooves, you’d be foolish to resist a Galaxians disco invasion.


Another duo proving that the keytar didn’t die with prog rock, Woodhands exist to merge the rigidness of electronica with the organic realness of indie rock. Taking a full arsenal of gear onstage including classic synthesisers and Dan Werb’s trademark Roland keytar the duo’s 2008 album ‘Heart Attack’ mixed garage rock sensibilities with dirty synths and a delicious smattering of vocoder.


Whereas the majority of bands in this list are indebted to technology to be able to recreate their layered recordings in a live setting, Soccer96 leave the laptops and sequencers at home, instead relying on Danalogue’s keyboards played through Marshall stacks and looped in realtime alongside Betamax’s jazzy drumbeats. Ditching the sync button lends an impressive authenticity and sense of ‘shit could actually go wrong’ to the duo’s live shows, with psychedelic soundscapes and complex drum rhythms bouncing off every wall.

I Was A Cub Scout

Ok, so I’m kind of breaking the rules with this one as keyboard-totting frontman Todd Marriott also played guitar, but no list of synthtasic duos would be complete without emotronica twosome I Was A Cub Scout. With the perfect blend of charming synth melodies, intricate drumming, and lyrics about girls, they were every indie kid’s wet dream back in 2008. Their one and only album was called I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope, which says it all really. Drummer William Bowerman now splits his time between playing complex instrumental prog rock with Brontide and backing synth popster La Roux, which makes a surprising amount of sense when listening back to the likes of ‘Pink Squares’ and ‘Echoes’.

The Presets

Australian duo The Presets are the most traditionally electronic group on this list, with their hard-hitting electro-house soundtracking dancefloors since 2003. Singles such as ‘Talk Like That’ and ‘This Boy’s In Love’ place Julian Hamilton’s 80’s new wave drawl and electroclash bass riffs over drummer Kim Moye’s club beats, whilst live the duo take on a whole new energy as cymbals are smashed and synth filters are tweaked up to breaking point. They’re also fond of salt and vinegar crisps and freestyle dancing for inevitable extra bonus points.

Mates Of State

As Mates Of State, the husband-and-wife pairing of keyboardist Kori Gardner and drummer Jason Hammel create classic indie-americana, singing love songs to each other with gorgeous harmonies dispersed over distorted organ chords. Unashamedly pop, latest EP You’re Going To Make It is basically the Taylor Swift you’re allowed to like.


Sweden’s I Love Machine Drum, styled I <3 MCHN DRM, are another band who pack in a formidable amount of gear for two people, as demonstrated by their live YouTube videos, with kaoss pads, laptops and synths all rigged up and controlled by the impressively mustachioed Trygve Stakkeland, whilst Geir Strandenæs Larsen brings his tight drumbeats to the fray.

Slingshot Dakota

The ultimate boy-girl emo duo Slingshot Dakota create a glorious noise for only two people. From the early beginnings on Their Dreams are Dead, but Ours is the Golden Ghost to 2012’s Dark Hearts, the pairing of Carly Comando and Tom Patterson make songs that pull at your heartstrings one minute and then make you want to dance the next. With distorted keyboards and power-pop drums they create anthems from the simplest of set-ups, which is surely what this whole two-piece band thing is all about.

Notes from the Keybed – This Month in Synths [July 2015]

It’s summer and the sun is out for everyone to enjoy… except for Rome’s A Space Love Adventure it seems who must’ve locked himself away in a dark studio for some time to come up with his latest loveletter to the 80’s. Synth Punk EP might not contain any ‘punk’ as such but you certainly get a whole lot of synth, in a gloriously retro Vangelis does ‘Top Gun’ kind of way! Comprising four tracks of authentic analogue synthesisers, guitars straight off a Def Leppard record, and infectious melodies. It’s irresistible stuff if you’re a fan of the likes of Kavinsky or M83… or if you have a soft spot for bad action movies, leather jackets and aviators. ‘Red Blaze’ kicks off the EP with the sort of guitar tone that hasn’t been let out of the 1980’s since Van Halen overused it, whilst ‘Avalanche 29’ would be at home soundtracking ‘Blade Runner’, and the synth-pop of ‘Thunderchrome’ just makes me want to bust out some ‘Wipeout’ on the old PS1.

The recordings are beautifully produced throughout giving you the sense that A Space Love Adventure seriously loves this stuff and puts a lot of effort into faithfully recreating it all the way down to the type of reverb on the snares; the gear nerd in me would love to see a kit list used to make this record! The EP is out now on Sunlover Records ( for the price of a VHS rental in 1983. And whilst you’re there be sure to check out his Soundcloud for a black-metal-synthwave (seriously) rendition of Darkthrone’s ‘Transylvanian Hunger’, which is way better than the ludicrous concept would have you believe. There’s even a cheesy key change at the end. With this as well The Soft Pink Truth providing excellent electronic renditions of the dark stuff, maybe black-metal-synthwave will be a new genre… needs a better name though, answers on a postcard pls.

Here at TBO there are many things we love, such as coffee and pizza, but what really makes us tick is damn good pop-punk and chiptune. Normally guitar-wielding brat punks stay away from the clunky 8-bit videogame soundtrack that reminds us of when Gameboys were yellow and had to be held in both hands but Boston’s Future Crooks have answered my prayers by releasing a stonkingly original general MIDI version of their latest album ‘Future Crooks In Paradise’. Entitled MIDI In Paradise, the album lovingly recreates every drumbeat, guitar riff and vocal in general MIDI stock keyboard sounds. The guys usually specialise in the kind of emotional rowdy punk rock sported by Real Friends, Knuckle Puck et al. and it is testament to the quality of songwriting that it translates so well over to a chiptune context, with catchy melodies and quirky sounds galore. The computer voice that starts ‘Briton’ is worth the admission price alone. You can download the pay-what-you-want record from Bad Timing Records’ Bandcamp ( and while you’re there, be sure to pick up the original version as well as the label’s new Summer 2015 Sampler, which is packed full of great tunes.

Everyone’s favourite Scottish synthpop trio CHVRCHES have announced the follow-up to 2013’s mega album The Bones Of What You Believe. Sophomore LP Every Open Eye is to be released on the 25th September with gorgeous cover art and a set of brand-new songs. Said to take a ‘less is more approach’, the band decided to forego the big budgets in favour of utilising the same setup they recorded their stunning debut with. In-between single ‘Get Away’ was a real grower, but seeing the three-piece unleash a whole new batch of songs instead of recycling this and ‘Dead Air’ from the ‘Hunger Games’ soundtrack is a great move to avoid the lazy repackaging of existing material that can otherwise leave the listener feeling short-changed. Lead single ‘Leave a Trace’ is a fantastic return to the anthemic singalong status of ‘Recover’ and ‘The Mother We Share’, with emotional lyrics juxtaposed against lifting synth pads and a real ear-worm of a chorus. Judging from the other new tracks they’ve been playing out live lately, Every Open Eye already looks set to be a contender for one of 2015’s records of the year!

A new release I missed from last month’s edition of ‘Notes from the Keybed’ was the second album from electronic rock crossover crew Modestep. London Road is out now and has all the dirty basslines, fist-pumping choruses and headbanging guitar moments we enjoyed on their debut, now joined by a whole host of guest talent including dubstep producers Funtcase and Trolley Snatcher, grime artist Big Narstie, and even Welsh reggae-rockers Skindred! As a result it is a far more eclectic affair, with big beats and layers of sub bass pulsating throughout a range of EDM styles from skittering garage to heavy brostep, all via the band’s trademark rock ’n’ bass. ‘Circle’ featuring Skindred is a strong highlight with Benji Webbe bringing his Newport swagger to a moombahton banger, and although the lyrics of ‘a circle goes round’ might not be poetry (a point carried throughout the record) you can’t argue with the pit-starting beatdown at the song’s climax. When I informed this site’s editor that Modestep had a new album out she told me how when she saw them they were ‘so loud they made her ears hurt’ and I can’t see that changing any time soon with this new set of face-melters in their arsenal!

This month’s Keytar Hero award goes to Justin Hawkins of The Darkness (and Hot Leg, who were alright, and British Whale but yeah…) who returned this year with another hard-rocking, liqueur-swigging, ball-busting collection of songs. Not satisfied with simply swinging into gigs straddling a pair of giant tits, Hawkins is also known to crack out one of his Moog or Roland keytars for a shredding solo in ‘Girlfriend’, which remains an absolute banger, occasionally whilst wearing a pirate hat. Full marks.

Notes from the Keybed – This Month in Synths [May(be slightly late) 2015]

A slightly delayed ‘Notes From The Keybed’ this month as I’ve been moving house and been without internet for several weeks! Connected normality has now returned and I’ve had lots of great new synthy music to catch up on, starting with the return of everyone’s favourite Irish anarcho-synth-brats Fight Like Apes, whose new self-titled third album has barely left my speak-ers (and head – damn catchy earworms!) since its release at the end of May. Their most accessible work yet, the album sounds made for pop chart domination, but still retains their distinctly cynical lyrics, McCluskey-esque indie gloom wrapped in ear candy, and tasty twin-synth attack. Single ‘Pretty Keen On Centrefolds’ is the sort of song that will remain in your head for days, with a sing-along chorus and quirky synth hooks dancing around a typically deadpan vocal that rejoices in its own self-loathing. Elsewhere the album takes in chiptune influences on ‘I Am Not A Merry Man’ as well as possibly my favourite pop song of the year so far with ‘Pop Itch’. Fight Like Apes was the result of a successful Fund It campaign launched in 2013 that raised €20,000 within a matter of days following the band splitting from previous label Model Citizen before finding a new home on consistently excellent UK indie lovelies Alcopop! Records. Despite scaling new commercial heights by achieving #1 in the Irish indie charts, the band haven’t lost their punk roots with song titles including ‘I Don’t Want To Have To Mate With You’ as well as closer ‘Carousel’ concluding with a nursery rhyme ‘Satan Satan Satan’ chant-a-long. Delightful stuff as ever from MayKay, Pockets and chums.

Sticking with Alcopop!, the label are releasing a new EP from indie disco tykes Waylayers during June. ‘Re:Verse’ combines the carnival vibes of ‘Sleepwalking’ with new wave house jams on ‘N2U’ and will no doubt be a perfect sunshine soundtrack throughout the months ahead. The London three-piece are recommended for fans of the futuristic pop sounds of Delphic and latter-day Klaxons and will be hitting the festival circuit this summer.

Back in 2012 I stumbled across a video online of one of those cool-looking hipster parties that only ever really happened in films. You know the sort, a bunch of attractive people dancing (and not being at all self-aware like in real life) in a darkened room – oh look there’s one with a camera (as you do), another with a silly hairstyle, etc… However in the middle of this hot mess was a duo playing the most ridiculously nasty trap jams with deliciously 80’s bell sounds sprinkled on top. Accompanied by a smorgasbord of musical gear from samplers and drum pads to all manner of effects units, it piqued by interest beyond my expectations of the usual ‘frat boy’ shenanigans. Turns out this was a live session of ‘Bells’ by Plant Plants and I was hooked. The London duo have now evolved into a three-piece live act called M.Y. MACHINES, with a sneak preview EP streaming over on Soundcloud. Included in the Stay Pift EP is a rerecorded version of ‘Bells’, now called ‘8E!!S’, and it is still just as devastatingly catchy as it was three years ago. Stick it on in the car and try not to nod your head like the hip-hop mogul you really are. The other tracks on the EP are just as great, with the the Battles-esque staccato guitar trails of ‘Machine House’ sitting nicely alongside the trendy vocal house of ‘X’. It’s seriously well-produced stuff that will appeal to people well outside the demographic of that original video. Check it out – you might be surprised!

Nerdcore synth-pop-rock is one genre that never fails to make me go ‘YES PLEASE!’ and that is exactly what was promised in my inbox when this fine zine’s editor sent me a link to The Robot Knights. Fronted by Maddy Myers, a games journalist who also plays a mean keytar, the Boston trio write songs about robots and dragons and zombies and cool stuff like that! On songs like ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ and ‘Werewolf On The Dancefloor’ their indie disco shines, with hooky keyboard lines meeting garage punk guitars and dancey drum beats. I just wish there was more like the synthy arpeggios of ‘Clone Machine’ and less of the standard pub rock of ‘Amazon’, which is a fairly uninspiring slice of bluesy guitar rock. When they crack out the synths though it is brilliant – more of this please! Their entire catalogue is available for free download from Bandcamp so is def-initely worth a look and a click. For being a badass lady standing her own in the still regrettably male-driven worlds of video-games and music – and for being damn handy on the Roland shoulder synth – this month’s Keytar Hero award goes to Myers! Keep slaying those dragons and riffs, synth fans, and we’ll see you next month…

Review: WOAHNOWS – Understanding and Everything Else

Following a slew of successful singles and some good ol’ fashioned non-stop touring, south-west indie punks WOAHNOWS have delivered their debut album on the consistently excellent Big Scary Monsters label. Understanding and Everything Else is packed with riotous riff rock interwoven with catchy pop hooks, successfully translating the duo’s raucous live experience into half an hour of solid punk bangers.

Their first release as a two-piece since the departure of former bassist Dan James, the interplay between singer-guitarist Tim Rowing Parker and drummer Adam Wherly is as tight as our newly elected government. The guitar riffs and drums organically meld together as one instrument, with a fantastically live feel to the recording.

Previous WOAHNOWS releases have been promising but, for this reviewer, somewhat samey in terms of sound and style; as much as I loved the likes of Go and Collective Aspiration the songs on Understanding… are far more distinctive and individual from each other. Each track has its own identity, from the fast riffy punk of ‘Sounds Like Spitting’ to the Tubelord-esque singalongs on ‘Life In Reverse’. The band even slow it down for some 6/8 balladry on ‘Neutral Haste’, which provides a welcome midway interlude. As ever with WOAHNOWS the vocals are stand-out brilliant, with some terrific gang shouts and harmonies throughout. They’ve even managed to squeeze in a cheeky hardcore section on album highlight ‘Livid / Rise’, which is gloriously vitriolic and will kick ass in a live setting.

The guitar tone throughout is bang-on, with some filthy fuzz contrasted with the sort of clarity that every riff-based indie band has been chasing since Dananananaykroyd’s debut. The guitar riffs worm their way into your brain, being equally as catchy as the vocal melodies and disprove the notion that punk rock ran of ideas years ago.
The album will no doubt appeal to fans of Gnarwolves, Brawlers and Pulled Apart By Horses, with infectious melodies perfectly balanced alongside a credible punk rock attitude and pit-worthy mosh-outs. It is worth mentioning what a perfect signing WOAHNOWS are for BSM; the band sound absolutely made for the label’s shouty yet catchy ethos, and the label are home to some ideal bedfellows for the Plymouth boys to hit the road with.

WOAHNOWS are touring the UK and Europe throughout May and June and will no doubt be soundtracking the summer festival season too. See you at the front!

4.5 out of 5 high fives!

Notes from the Keybed – This Month In Synths [April 2015]

Crystal Castles, everyone’s favourite experimental noise-wave band, are back! Well, sort of anyway. Last year singer Alice Glass announced her departure from the duo followed by a rather public fall-out with songwriter/producer Ethan Kath. At the time it was claimed that the group would carry on as a solo project from Kath, the first results of which have recently been uploaded to SoundCloud.

New song ‘Frail’ has the classic Crystal Castles sound of lo-fi synths cascading over waves of pounding electronic drums, topped off the sort of pumping sidechain compression that would make Daft Punk cringe. Vocals are provided by a singer identified only as ‘Edith’ who, whether intentional or not, does a near identical impression of Glass with the band’s indecipherable lyrics and screechy outbursts intact as ever. It is unclear whether ‘Edith’ is a permanent singer, or if Kath will have guests on different tracks, or stick with it as a solo project only. Regardless of what happens a new album will be most welcome and if we get an Alice Glass solo record too (pleeeeaasse) then no one can complain!

Nothing quite brightens up a dreary Monday morning than an email promising Swedish ‘outspoken feminist pop/electro’, which is exactly what landed in my inbox at the start of April. Tikkle Me deal in glorious harmonies and lovingly crafted synthesiser-based pop songs, much in the vein of Eisley, Imogen Heap or fellow Scandinavian electro popper Robyn. New album What Is Real is a joy to listen to, with a perfect balance of upbeat electro productions such as ‘Six Senses Screaming’ and gentler vocal-led songs ‘Niagara’ and ‘Under The Bridge’ (no, not THAT ‘Under The Bridge’!). A lot of time and effort has clearly gone into the recording process as the seemingly contradictory elements of chiptune synths, classical strings, processed drum beats, and layered near-operatic vocals fit perfectly together. Lyrically, the album is mostly based on feminist themes of empowerment and independence, yet it is never overwhelming or pretentious. A few lyrics are somewhat lost in translation such as on ‘Time To Act’ where ‘deep in the jungle they play hardcore’, raising a smile at the mental image of lions shredding some HXC! But I never fail to be depressed at my own country’s laziness that everyone needs to sing in English to be commercially recognised, and the overall message is an important one that will no doubt resonate with anyone who has felt under-appreciated or segregated, regardless of their location or gender. My personal highlight of the record ‘Rebels’ features the sort of huge half-time chorus that Ellie Goulding has been plying her trade with in recent times, but with lyrics about being a strong leader unafraid of people’s expectations and preconceptions. ‘What Is Real’ is available now through the Gaphals record label and comes highly recommended for fans of intelligent and beautifully crafted pop music.

Here at TwoBeatsOff, I pretty much get free reign to write what I like (ta editor) as long as it is vaguely on topic and introduces people to rad new music but I did have to grapple with my conscience over this next one because my absolute favourite song of the month is as far from cool and underground as it gets. Carly Rae Jepsen… no come back, honest it’s a cracker… dropped a new tune this month called ‘All That’ produced by former Test Icicle and Lightspeed Champion mainman Dev Hynes along with songwriter Ariel Rechtshaid. Predictably enough, it sounds nothing like ‘Circle. Square. Triangle’ or ‘Call Me Maybe’ but is actually a slow burning slice of 80s balladry, complete with twinkling arpeggios and guilt-free slap bass. With an irresistible R&B chorus building alongside clipped guitar, big reverbed drums and dramatic piano chords, it is equal parts catchy pop song and hipster-friendly pastiche and all the better for it. Not available to download in the UK currently – if anyone knows otherwise tweet us – ‘All That’ will appear on Jepsen’s third album E-Mo-Tion, whilst Hynes’ Blood Orange project has just released a new remix bundle of single ‘Uncle Ace’ – check out the Kindness remix for more Prince inspired 80’s goodness.

I’ve been fairly slow on the uptake of new radio darlings PVRIS, who have been plugging away at their brand of synth-infused modern rock anthems since 2012. This month the band released a new video for ‘White Noise’, one of the highlights of their debut album of the same name. Boasting luscious keyboards, heavy as hell drums, and an incredibly strong vocal from frontwoman Lyndsey Gunnulfsen it is set to dominate the summer. PVRIS are appearing at Slam Dunk Festival and Reading and Leeds, as well as gig dates across the US and Europe. Don’t miss them!

Close your eyes and picture the coolest band in the world, what would they be like? How about a Swedish garage rock band with post-punk guitar riffs, fuzzy bass, and a Debbie Harry lookalike who sings in French whilst rocking the keytar? Well that’s exactly what CIKATRI$ are, and new record The Texas EP, released to support their appearance at SXSW, is packed with indie rock hooks and keyboard/guitar showdowns. It’s terrific stuff and reason enough to make Aurélie our this month’s Keytar Hero! …and that’s before we get onto her stylophone and theremin playing as well as their merch options of tote bags and temporary tattoos, which are all kinds of awesome. Check out all four CIKATRI$ EPs on Bandcamp now before they outgrow the underground.