Robyn Dancing On My Own Synths

Dancing On My Own was released in 2010 by Swedish synth-pop legend Robyn. The song has a distinctly 80s electropop vibe with a chunky synth bass playing sequenced 1/16th notes taking centre stage. The song juxtaposes bittersweet lyrics over its upbeat electronic beat, and traces of Dancing On My Own resonate through pop music today, such as Lady Gaga’s Stupid Love and Justin Bieber’s Friends.

Dancing On My Own was co-written and co-produced by Robyn and Swedish producer Patrik Berger, who has also worked with Lana Del Rey (Off to the Races), Charli XCX (Sucker), Bleachers (Take the Sadness Out of Saturday Night) and Carly Rae Jepsen (Dedicated and Dedicated Side B). An article by The Globe and Mail describes how the song came together using a Korg MonoPoly:

“His studio is in a little house, not much bigger than a shack, in a hidden courtyard off a main drag on the Stockholm island of Sodermalm. There, he brings me over to a Korg Mono/Poly synthesizer along the red-velvet wall of the back room, and starts fiddling with a knob: It was this synth, in this room, that helped him shape the iconic, throbbing bass backbone to Robyn’s Grammy-nominated 2010 single Dancing On My Own. The song put him in the spotlight as an in-demand songwriter and producer. “It was one of those songs where people came up to me, talking about how much it mattered,” he says.” 

The article namedrops the Korg MonoPoly, which has a huge four-oscillator sound that could have been used for the bass and a distinctive arpeggiator that lets you cycle between the four oscillators, that could have been used for the arps. If it was used for writing, it’s hard to tell where it may have been used in the production, as many of the sounds in Dancing On My Own are wide stereo sounds, something that the MonoPoly’s mono output doesn’t do.

Robyn played an early demo of Dancing On My Own at her Red Bull Music Academy lecture, in which you can hear most of the musical elements are already present. The lyrics haven’t been written at this point, so she’s singing ‘yoghurt’, which is what she calls made-up English. Listen to the demo here:

There are two versions of Dancing On My Own, the radio version and the album version included on Body Talk. The radio version has a bouncy, ascending synth arpeggio, whilst the album version is a little harder and features a different bass sound and no arps. Some prefer the album version, and that’s the version that Robyn performs live, but for this article, I’m going to cover the radio version as there are more synth sounds to get stuck into. There’s also already an instrumental of the album version floating around.

For my remake of Dancing On My Own, I recreated all the synth tracks using Xfer Serum and Arturia Prophet-5 V, as well as one instance of GForce M-Tron Pro for the Mellotron orchestra in the bridge. All the custom presets created for the remake are available for download for free at the end of the article, and Patreon subscribers can download the full Ableton Project with the remake. 

Below is my full remake, using no samples from the original song. Note that I’ve transposed the keyboard parts up a half-step for the video so you can see what the keys are playing. The audio is in F# major but the video shows the keys in G major.

Arpeggiator

The bouncy arp pattern that starts the song uses a 1/16th note ascending arpeggiator with simple two-note patterns, playing the root and 5th of each chord. For my synth patch, I used Xfer Serum, starting with a sawtooth wave and setting the Warp mode to Bend+ with 85% depth to soften the sound. Unison mode is on with 5 voices and detune set to 0.06. The sound isn’t that wide, so I’ve pulled Unison Width down to 40 in Serum’s global settings. For the filter, I have the cutoff set around 900Hz with keyboard tracking on and a fast (265ms) decay envelope adding a pluck. The arpeggio notes are very short, so I’ve got the Ableton Arpeggiator device’s gate set to 50% and the amp envelope has a 575ms decay with 165ms release.

There’s a low cut filter on the sound that removes any of the bass frequencies, and I added this in Serum’s onboard FX with the High 24 filter set around 500Hz. There’s a 200ms ping-pong delay with the mix set to 30% from Serum and Valhalla VintageVerb for reverb.

00:00
  • Arp Dry 00:00
  • Arp w/FX 00:00
dancing on my own serum preset

Bass

The chunky plucked bass is one of the highlights of Dancing On My Own, and also the main sound that I struggled to accurately recreate. There are some interesting things happening with the bass sound; it starts off slightly hi-passed so it’s less bassy during the intro. There also appears to be a second bass patch that joins around the 24-second mark.

The main bass pluck was likely created on the Korg MonoPoly, however I recreated both bass sounds in Serum for my remake. I have personally compared the Korg MonoPoly plugin with the real synth, and unfortunately, they’re not very similar. For the main bass sound, I used two sawtooth waves an octave apart, both with voices set to 2 and detune set to a low 0.03. This is a mostly mono sound, so I pulled the global unison width setting down to 8. 

I set the filter cutoff to 400Hz (with keyboard tracking on) and modulating with envelope 2 to create the pluck effect. I set both Env 1 (the amp envelope) Env 2’s decay to 660 – 740ms with no sustain. I then ran Serum through Soundtoys Decapitator, an EQ and a compressor. The EQ helped match the original sound a lot: I boosted 315Hz, cut 510Hz and then boosted 1.25kHz and 2.25kHz.

00:00
  • Bass Dry 00:00
  • Bass w/EQ 00:00
  • Bass w/Arps 00:00
robyn dancing bass 1

The second bass sound has more unison detune and uses a square wave for the high oscillator. The filter resonance is set to 40% which gives it a wetter sound that helps it stand out from the main bass sound. I added some white noise from the noise oscillator to add some grit to the sound, and like the main bass sound, it’s mostly mono.

00:00
  • Bass 2nd Layer 00:00
  • Bass Both Layers 00:00
robyn dancing bass 2

Pads

The main chord sound only plays during the chorus sections and is difficult to hear behind Robyn’s vocals. It can be heard most clearly during the outro when it continues to play after the bass and drums have dropped out. To me, it sounds like there are two separate chord tracks: the first pad track is darker, less detuned, and less stereoized, while the second pad track is brighter with more unison/detune and it’s pushed to the very edges of the stereo spectrum.

I recreated both tracks in Serum, the first one is a simple sawtooth wave with 3 voices and detune set to 0.07. The filter cutoff is set around 2000Hz and I’ve pulled the width down to 60 in the global settings. This is what it sounds like:

00:00
  • Pad 1 00:00
robyn dancing pad 1

The wide pad is similar but with more detune and width. I again start with a single sawtooth wave in Serum, but this with 5 voices and detune set to 0.12. The filter is controlled with a soft envelope with 150ms attack and 2.7s decay, and the resonance is bumped up to 40% to sweeten the sound. I boosted the highs with an EQ and used Ozone Imager 2 with width set to 60% to widen the sound even more. Here’s what they both sound like:

00:00
  • Pad 2 00:00
  • Pad 2 w/FX 00:00
  • Both Pads Layered 00:00
robyn dancing pad 2

Plucks

The next sound to join the arrangement is a noisy lo-fi synth that’s relatively quiet in the mix and that I recreated using Arturia Prophet-5 V for its noise-modulation abilities. My Prophet-5 V patch uses a self-oscillating filter with resonance cranked up to 10, keyboard tracking on and the cutoff filter set to 65.4Hz, which gives you a sine wave. 

For the noisy element of the sound, I turned white noise up to 10 in the mixer, and I also modulated the filter frequency using white noise. To do this, set SRC MIX in the Wheel Mod section to noise, set the destination to filter, and raise the mod wheel a small amount – in my case to 0.020. I ran this patch through Prophet-5 V’s onboard chorus effect and reverb from VintageVerb.

00:00
  • Noisy Synth 00:00
  • Noisy w/Arps 00:00
robyn dancing noisy sine

There’s a layered pluck sound that plays a single-line melody after the second chorus and during the outro, and I also recreated this sound using Arturia Prophet-5 V. The first pluck layer is a single square wave with a snappy 85ms decay amp envelope. It’s relatively high in the mix and also quite dry, with no delay and not much reverb.

The second pluck is darker and longer with a distinct tremolo effect. For this patch I used two square waves, one pitched an octave higher than the other one, with a 3-4 second decay time on both the filter and amp envelopes. There’s plenty of chorus and reverb applied to this patch; I used the onboard Juno chorus set to 50% and Valhalla VintageVerb with mix set to 40%. I recreated the tremolo effect in Ableton using the AutoPan device with the amount set to 50% and the rate set to 5.50Hz.

00:00
  • Short Pluck 00:00
  • Dark Pluck 00:00
  • Dark Pluck w/FX 00:00
robyn dancing pluck

Mellotron

The string line in the bridge is unmistakably a Mellotron with all of its lo-fi charm. Being released in 2010, GForce M-Tron or M-Tron Pro were likely used for this sound, and after digging through the included presets, I’m relatively certain that the sound on Dancing On My Own is the Halfspeed Tron Basic preset. The sound has a big reverb-y release, which I recreated by automating the mix level of VintageVerb so that the reverb tail fades in before the last note ends. I set the reverb decay to a long 6 seconds and the automation brings the mix level up to 50%.

00:00
  • Mellotron 00:00
  • Reverb Automation 00:00
  • With Plucks 00:00
robyn dancing mellotron

Dancing On My Own Presets

All the Xfer Serum and Arturia Prophet-5 V presets created for my Dancing On My Own remake are freely available to download below. Note that you’ll need the new version of Arturia Prophet-5 V, there presets won’t work on the older V3 version.

The presets from this article are also included in the Synth Sounds Collection, a free preset pack collecting the synth presets from all of my articles in one download.

Get the Ableton Live Project, multitrack stems and MIDI files from this remake on the Ableton Live Projects store:

Header artwork by Makarxart

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