Posts Tagged ‘#synthesizer’

We all try to rationalize situations we are not sure of.   We attempt to explain why things happen – or things that happen to us.  We try to understand the world around us.  When I worked at the instrument music store, I rationalized that I got the job because I was a previous customer and that I could program and understand the new digital MIDI keyboards hitting the market.  Very quickly (months, I believe) I was given my own satellite store to manage.  I opened three more chain stores in a few short years.  In reality, I probably bought more in equipment than I got paid to work there!  Almost kidding, but I understood a lot of the toys and had played with a bunch of them, but to get a room full of toys all day long and then get paid to learn all I could about them, well, I won’t get into religion here but that was heaven on Earth.  I would have done it for free.  And do you know how I rationalized being a SALES MAN? (I am pretty anti-establishment from way back………..) I tried to listen to where the customer was coming from and what they needed.  From there I would teach them what I knew about gear that would help get them to the next level.   Everyone needs to get to the next level.  That is what I am doing today.  It is what you are doing right now.

And sometimes we need to explain to ourselves why.   Why do I need to buy that new toy?  Why do they like me?  Why does the sun always shine where I am?  Why aren’t things working as I planned.  Why don’t they understand me?   What did I do right or wrong?  This has bugged me all my life and I hope it does not get to you.  Working in the music store(s) I sold gear to a lot of bands. Some people were regulars.  Always something needed, some new gear.  One of the bands told me that their sound man was on vacation and they needed someone to run sound for them.  It SEEEEEEMED logical to ask me, I knew about the mixing boards and PA systems.  But I had never run sound before ( truth in advertising alert – – – I did run sound for one other band prior to this but that is a funny story I wanted to share with you later.  So I did it once before  ….. technically  …….) What would you do?  These are good customers and by now good friends too.  If I run sound and really suck, the friendship and the work relationships are out the window.  I let them know I do not have a lot of experience but if they don’t have anyone else I would be glad to help.  They decide to go with me for the vacation gigs.  I run through the checklist a thousand times in my head.  I set the stage and house equipment up methodically, I run through the gain staging like riding a bike, I get the monitors working and run CD audio through the mains to test them.  Time to start.   Big crowd.   Lots of people and friends.  As you can imagine I am rapidly cycling through excitement, concern, confusion, fear, panic, and jazzed up one after the other.  The band starts playing and they are soooooo good I just relax.  I think even I can make these guys sound good!  I was lucky.  From what I remember the event was fine.

Their sound man decided to move onto other things and when he came back from vacation I was asked to take his place.  Again I had to rationalize;  well, they only like me cause I can get them a deal at the store. Well, they like me because I can set up the equipment pretty fast.   Well, it went over well because they are really tight and have great equipment.   You have probably done that a bunch of times as well.  It was hard for me to accept all the way down to the point of knowing that they noticed and appreciated the mix.  Their fans did too but most importantly, so did the band wives!  Never forget the power of the spouse!  So now for the first time, I am involved with a real band.  I am the regular sound guy.  The Band understands the power of the PA, and they determine that the sound guy gets equal cut…… as if he is as important to the overall sound as the individual band members were.  Amazing concept and it worked so well over the years.  I could not rationalize my way out of deserving that one; we worked as a team and the band always sounded great.

All this from knowing how to program a digital keyboard.

Again, there are lots of guidelines about setting EQ.  But don’t let this confuse you early on.  Basically, this is a fancy way to change the tone of the signal.  Knobs that are tied together in brackets work together. One determines the frequency range that will be affected and the other knob determines how much boost or cut will be applied to the selected frequency range.  The first instinct is to turn everything up.  Indeed this is quite natural but wrong.  Test after test, many people will say one sound is better than the other even though the only real difference is the higher or louder volume level.  If you think of boosting the frequency group with the EQ as if it were an amplifier turning the frequency group louder, this will help explain why we needed the extra head room when setting up the gain stage – you are making the signal louder when you add EQ boost.  If everything is set and you boost a channel EQ, you can unintentionally overload the input level on the EX send for example, causing that signal to distort or clip when returning back to the mix.

In this configuration there is a hi frequency group cut/boost knob.  Then there are hi-mid frequency knob tied to a cut/boost knob and below another pair in the Low-mid frequency range.  Underneath that is the low end group cut/boost knob.  In essence, select the amount of cut or boost on the frequency groups (Hi – Lo) to shape sound so it reflects the source signal.

For the paired knobs, select the frequency to be affected and using its pair cut or boost that particular frequency (as opposed to a larger group of frequencies for the Hi-LO knobs).  Keeping in mind sometimes less is really more, rather than try to turn frequencies up or louder to make them sound better, try making them sound bad.  Which frequencies interfere with the shape and tone of the instrument?  Does a certain frequency make a nasty squawking sound when it is a bit louder?  Try cutting that frequency a good amount.  You might be able to turn the channel volume up after cutting signals and keep the level not necessarily louder over-all in the mix but in the correct group or place in the instrument/vocal mix.  Listeners will be able to hear the instrument clearer and more distinctly if it closely resembles the real instrument’s group. So this gets pretty easy.  Like a simple home stereo, turn the top know to clockwise to make the sound brighter by increasing the hi frequency group.   Turn it counter-clockwise if it sounds harsh or brittle in the upper range.  The paired knobs allow you to select specific frequencies within a group (Hi or Mid) and then cut or boost to shape the tone of the source and add flavor or reduce gremlins.

For microphones that will be used by vocalists, this is an area where you can make a lot of difference because the vocalist signal is also being sent to the on-stage monitors.  Sometimes they are really loud.  And when that happens, the monitor is blaring the vocalist’s signal right back into the microphone on stage.  This in turn goes quickly to the monitor and straight at the microphone again.  Soon this will turn into a squeal in the range that is strongest or loudest.  This is the classic example of a ‘feed-back loop‘.

The knee-jerk reaction is to turn the channel volume down or turn the monitor sends down.  The better way is to learn which frequency/frequency group is triggering the loop first.  Use the paired EQ knobs to change the hi-mid or lo-mid frequency responsible for triggering the nasty loop.  Successfully done, slowly turn the volume up a bit.  Slowly increase volume (usually to the monitors, but will apply to the House Mains in some situations) until you start to hear a feed-back loop starting.  Determine which frequency it is and turn it down in the mix. You want as much clear gain as you can to the performers. If you can only turn Monitor Send up to 5, let’s say or you get feedback, the performer might not be able to hear themselves over the amplified instruments and will be forced to scream louder and louder to get heard.  If you pull down the offending frequencies you can turn the same signal to the Monitor Send to maybe 8 or so.  Happy vocalist.

Now that we are back to audio channels, see the examples below.  Remember, that the channels run down from the TOP.  In some mixing boards, there is a ‘pad‘ switch – it could be above or below the 1st gain knob – that can determine which input type will be monitored by that channel and it can also change the input level or signal strength.  To reinforce the general definition below, if the audio source uses a battery or gets plugged into AC, it will need to be ‘padded‘ using this switch, where MOST microphone applications will not be strong enough if the channel is padded.

Whatever is plugged into the input jack on the mixer for that channel will send a signal to the 1st ‘gain stage‘.

This acts more like a flood gate than an amplifier in that it allows you to reduce the strength of the signal coming into that channel.  But it feels like an amplifier as when you turn it clock wise – it gets louder and if you turn it counter-clockwise – it gets softer or lower in volume……  This is the great balancer.  This knob determines how much of the signal gets distributed or sent to other out puts, effects, processors and recording devices, etc.  This is the foundation of the mix you are creating.   We start here and do not continue with the other knobs and gizmos in the ‘channel strip‘ until this is set correctly.

The biggest trick in setting this up for most band performances is – well – band members.  A lot of them do not trust the sound guys they have worked with for a lot of reasons.  Some performers will set their level (amp, energy, settings) really low during sound check, knowing once the sound is going they can turn themselves up so they can hear themselves.  Most often, it is just difficult to play really hard and loud like you will during a full band live performance when no one else is making noise.  Knowing all that, you need to start with a good level here so you can set the gain stage properly.  Generally, open microphones will need more gain than instruments like keyboards or mp3 players.  Things that get plugged into AC or use a battery will probably have a stronger signal strength than those that go directly to the snake/mixing board.

As a caution again, make sure the amplifiers are turned all the way down before you plug anything into the mixer once the full system is connected.  We tested the House PA and Stage monitors before the band got here, so before you start plugging in instruments and performers, turn the House PA amplifiers down.  I also turn the Monitor Sends down all the way so you do not hit the monitors with some pretty ugly sounds.  If you use fantom power for your microphones or other devices, I have heard people suggest you do the same whenever turning this function ON or OFF.

Now we are ready to move through the rest of the channel.  I am old school, and I like to start with the mixing board ‘clean’.  With all knobs and gizmos set to center or neutral.  Some guys like to start off where they left or pre-mix, but I have seen many situations where that theory gets yanked.

Above board design has the +48 fantom power switch.  When pressed in it will send appropriate voltage to the microphone or device.  Best to have Master faders turned down during this part as well.  Underneath is the pad/Line switch.  This you can safely determine a good guess in advance depending on what type of instrument is plugged into that channel.  You can always start with pad pressed in and gain stage at minimum to be on the cautious side and then release pad and turn gain knob as you watch the signal LED’s.  Get good performing signal as opposed to good practice level and see where the gain stage knob is pointing.  Try to get signal meters and LED’s close to the red or overload stage, and then back off the gain stage knob just a little.  We may need the extra head room when we add EQ, use ‘inserts‘ etc.

This board and many others offer a HPF (‘High Pass Filter‘).  When depressed it will allow mid and high frequencies to go through the channel and process normally.   So, it really cuts or turns down the really low end signals.  This is where the frequencies and ranges of instruments in an earlier LSR series come into play.  Instruments like, flutes, acoustic guitars, vocalists, cymbals, snares cannot make sounds in the low end.  The over-all mix will benefit if you use the HPF and cut the very low frequencies on those instruments.   Microphone stand rumble, bleed over from the kick drum into the snare along with a number of other unwanted sounds can be eliminated before they even get into the mix.

Next series we will continue down the signal path.

Here is an instrumental I want to share with you.  Much of story telling is history, and much of my history might be considered ancient history to many of you.  We take a lot of things for granted.  It is hard to imagine times without smart phones, GPS navigation devices and e-mail.  Well, it helps to imagine those times but in the music industry.  When the first synthesizers came out you could create really cool new sounds but you could only play one or two notes at a time!!!  The major studios had upped the game and could now record up to 4 tracks of audio on the reel to reel tape machines.  Computers were so slow and had such limited memory that it was difficult if not impossible to record hi-quality tracks without it crashing or losing what you just recorded.

One of those new amazing synthesizers was from Moog.  Even now you will probably recognize songs that used these new machines.  Moog Swing is an instrumental I wrote in honor of the Moog sounds, although I did not own one.  I programmed one of my tone generators to get as close as I could to mimic the classic Moog sound.  This is all MIDI tracks recorded on the Atari 1040ST.  I would have to look at my track-sheet notes to confirm, but I think the drum sounds came from a Yamaha RX15 drum machine.  This is the same drum machine I used on the road in Corpus Christie Texas and you can hear it again in the song “Our Bodies Move” from my earlier post.  Today, modern samplers and PC program plug-ins attempt to offer the popular sounds from the ancient tone generators and keyboards in wave play-back programs, but it is nothing like the real thing.

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This probably won’t be the last time I will mention that I like to teach things that I have learned over the years.  But I also like to learn.  I did OK in school, but nothing really interested me, so I just made it through.  At the right time in my life, I found music.  From my parents, TV, brothers and back then AM radio, I absorbed all the songs I could.  Back then they did not pre-package and filter music in the same way they do now,  You could hear unique styles and among the commercial sounding and cookie-cutter pop tunes there were really talented songwriters and performers.  Recordings were also hit and miss, with wide varieties of textures.  We were still waiting for “stereo” to come out.   Fun times!

I bring part of this up to say the following:  I am just a guy.  I have no formal training, I haven’t gone to technical schools,

I have not worked with national major players and unless you hang out in my town, you probably do not know the names of the bands, writers and performers I have been blessed to know.   I wish you did.

I also know a lot of very smart guys that have all the answers and references ……

Then there is the group that THINK they have all the answers but never get things to work or things sound bad and get worse as the evening goes on.

The best way in my opinion to truly know what you have learned is to teach it to someone else.  (if you can!)

I do not think another series about which knob you should turn, which special new box you should buy, which new instrument will get you to the next level, or which processor do you add to a particular instrument is going to add to what is already out there.  I would like to give you a feel of options and let you figure out on your own why ‘it doesn’t work’ or if ‘it sounds bad and gets worse’.  As described in earlier my LSR series, a number of live sound tragedies could be avoided if the sound engineer understood the challenge from both points of view.  Too many sound men and women mix to the House.  It is extremely important to mix for the Stage as much as the House.  More on that later.

Once you know why it is not working or not sounding as good as you want, you will be able to fix or improve the mix much quicker.  There are tricks that will help there as well.  I picked up a few from here and there, started writing songs with my older brother, bought a 4 track reel-to-reel and a couple Radio Shack microphones (that were great and I still have one in my mic case!!).  After that of course we needed guitars, drums, organ, and I am still living at home.  I had to figure out how to get them all to work together because back then I was the ONLY person I knew that had anything like recording equipment.  Necessity is the Mother of Invention and I kept going until I figured it out.  Once friends and their friends knew I could figure their stuff out, I got to know a lot of musicians.  Then I got into sales.  One thing leads to another.

Setting up the sound gear for a live gig, the beginning part before you even plug in the equipment, creates the foundation you will need to have a problem free event.  IF we understand what the foundation is there to do, the building or pyramid can get as tall as you want, and you will not have to worry about it crashing down on everyone around you.   Here is where we need to focus or channel in on the foundation itself and the ways to build a strong audio reinforcement base.  This is why I truly believe if I can learn it, so can you.  Next series we will talk about the other type of audio channel.

Ideas from songs can and should come from all sorts of things.  I try to observe experiences from other people.  Too many writers base their material on their own personal experience.  This is powerful but has serious drawbacks.  One has to experience nirvana or tragedy in order to write about it.  This can be limiting unless you have a very tumultuous life.  Not good for health and well being of the artist.  So I try to empathize, sympathize and understand the thoughts, mood and feelings of others as they experience life changing events.

I had been a musician with limited access to toys for most of the early years.  Lots of time and not much cash or resources available.  That did not stop me from observing others, and in fact probably offered me the time to observe.  Anyway, a friend of mine and I were walking around and I noticed a person in a wheel chair.  There was another person behind pushing the chair, but something seemed a little unusual for some reason and I kept watching the pair.  IWE naturally thought the person pushing was there to help the person in the wheel chair.  They went up to one of those bank ATM’s and much to my surprise, the person in the wheel chair moved out of the way and the walking person went up to the ATM display.  What moved me to write this song was the fact that I had originally assumed the person walking was assisting the person in the wheel chair.  The person standing started to use the ATM and they searched by hand for the braille instructions!  The person walking was blind, and being assisted by the person in the wheel chair!  We can touch others in so many different ways.  That lead me to the lyrics and a better understanding of human beings.  Not just their ability to assist others in ways we might not think of, but also how we (I) perceived something and came up with the wrong conclusion.  I use a phrase that describes that effect;  Many people have the correct observation but come to incorrect conclusions.  This song, the lyrics and the music, mean a lot to me personally.  I truly hope you find something here you can relate to.

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When the time comes and the band is ready, members will start preparing on stage.  If you have not already, make the time now to introduce yourself to the host.  This is the person with boots on the ground that you are working for (with).  This could be club or hall manager to charity event coordinator.  Get their name, introduce yourself and let them know if they need anything they can come to you and you will be glad to help.  During the performance try to meet the host again and ask if everything sounds good.  Be ready for suggestions and try not to defend or give reasons otherwise.  Keep that relationship friendly.   You may need them to turn off entertainment systems, reset fuse breakers and turn off overhead lights, etc.

Now the band is all on stage they can hear themselves through the monitor and their own instrument amplifiers and they seem ready to go.  The first spokesperson for the band or performance walks up to the microphone to address the crowd and introduce the band or act ……  That is when I turn up the Mains.  One of the bands I worked with for years took advantage of this.  The lead singer would come out every gig and tell the audience “the name of the band is” XXXXX  “and this is what we sound like”.  Then the band came on full with a captivating song.  From quiet to full band volume without the audience going through an hour of “check, check, check…. Test.  Can you hear me??  Check…..” and the kick drum thumping for 10 minutes while the rest of the club is quiet.  It can be stressful for all and this is a great way to avoid all that and sound better on the first song than most bands’ sound until the second set of the evening.  I guarantee it will work.

Balancing levels.  While you connected each players instruments and microphones and got good signals, you normally use the microphone three-connector cables to plug audio into the snake on stage.  For most microphone applications this is the way to connect.  Even a guitar amp will have a microphone in front of its speaker and that microphone will get plugged into the snake for the ‘guitar channel”.  These instruments may require more ‘gain’ than other instruments.  This can be based on the type of microphone as well as the source of the sound… a trumpet can be much louder than the flute when using the same microphone.  Just saying.

If you have an instrument that plugs into an external power source (this is very general, so there are a lot of variations to this tip…) it will have an audio out jack on the instrument – device.  Instruments or devices that plug into an external power source will often use a hi-impedance 1/4 inch ‘guitar’ cable.  These will normally be connected to a direct-input (DI) box first.  The direct-input box will have the three pin microphone connector for cables that will go to the snake.  These instruments often already have more gain than unpowered microphones and generally speaking do not need as much input signal boost or gain than most microphones out on the road.  Make sure these signals do not over power the other input levels and you will be able to get a good mix.  Programmed sounds from keyboards, samplers, tone generators and other devices will vary widely when changing from sound to sound.  Keep an eye during sound check on a number of sounds the devices will generate and set gain levels for the loudest ones.  That way you can pull down on the fader for the device during hi-volume songs or sections and boost them up for softer sounds or tones.   Once the board is properly gain staged and EQ is used, the volume faders should be used to adjust the balance or mix of all signals.

Next we will be defining the term ‘sound reinforcement’

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**This is MidiMike’s daughter. I help my dad out with his blog. I wanted to tell all of you that this is, by far, my favorite song that my dad has ever written. If you stop to listen to any of the original tunes, I would highly recommend this one!! Thanks.**

And now a message from my dad:

On most of my tunes, I play all the instruments and sequence the drums and other sound effects.  I usually sing lead or I have my wife take the vocal lead.  Once I started working in music stores selling instruments and sound equipment, I asked friends (and customers at the time!) to come over and lay down guitar solos or I might have a guest vocalist.  What I do at Night was one that we did ourselves.  I play all guitar parts and the back up vocals.  I think at this time I had graduated from a Yamaha MT4X (I think they were called and this was a 4 Track double speed cassette recorder) to the Alesis ADAT.  So now I had an amazing 8 tracks to record on!  Actually I needed one track to record the SMPTE time code so the Alesis ADAT would sync up to the computer (now I actually have a PC and put the Atari in deep storage).  I can go into this details on this system for a later post when I am feeling nostalgic, but it allowed unlimited MIDI tracks on the PC or Atari and connect to the playback of the ADAT.

The song itself reflects my thoughts on a number of topics.  I really like to drive.  I don’t have a fast or luxury car.    I just like to drive.  When I have some free time or just want to think, I often find myself cruising the local  country side.  I would listen to music while driving and that sometimes adds to the frustration.  Most of the music you hear on commercial radio is garbage or re-packaged songs and ideas I have heard for the last few decades.  Like a lot of us struggling artists and performers, we see a bunch of bands with lots of air-play and they are just so-so.  OK music, but nothing special.  As a songwriter, I get so tired of the same theme or idea in every song on the radio and they seem to get played non-stop.

One line reflects this fairly well…. ” so I turn the radio over to the right, playing the same songs as the other night”.   Originally titled – “Rainy Day”, What I do at Night has become one of my favorite driving songs.  Enjoy.

When you start off with well-balanced levels on all inputs, you can make changes in confidence.  During sound check; which is AFTER Gain Staging and setting up the board for the current event, you added each band member and their related instruments to the process and you have good levels on all tracks/channels.  I try to grab a few minutes once all drum inputs (including drummer vocal pic or other percussion and tone generators) are set properly to have the drummer play for a few minutes without other musicians.  This helps get the feel of the entire drum kit and this is when you would balance all the levels.  The hi-hat for example, might not be hitting the meters in the upper range but it sounds really loud if its fader is up to the nominal level.  It is helpful to know once the board is set you can turn the volume on any track DOWN any time you want.  You just do not want to turn anything up beyond the sweet spot except for the occasional solo or special piece that might need additional reinforcement or boost out in the audience.  And as always, try to return to the sweet spot area once the section is over.

Some mixing consoles allow you to assign tracks to separate signal paths or additional outs.  These can be grouped to a single sub fader when running system in mono.  You can then take the individual drum tracks out of the house mix and send them only to the bus for your drum kit.  Assign this bus 1 for example to the Mains and the fader now for bus 1 will allow you to adjust the volume level of the entire drum kit (not the drummer’s mic if he or she also sings) with one fader!  If you need to change the volume of the kit as the event goes on, you can keep the blend and balance of all levels by using the bus 1 fader.  This might come in handy more than you might think, and it is easy to set up.

Then I do the same thing with the vocals if you have more than two vocalists on stage.  They can also be grouped to bus 2 for example and you can adjust vocals with one fader and not worry about changing the balance of the singers/vocalists on stage.  Brass and string sections and even a number of guests sitting at a table can also be grouped the same way.  You can still change the EQ setting for each channel in a group or bus and you can still change effects levels anytime you want without affecting the balance. 

Now if you think about it, we have grouped similar instruments together, set them up to control group volume with a single fader and we have the tracks and effects returns that might need minor adjustments during the event isolated and easy to see or adjust.  Your job now consists of only a few faders out of all the channels plugged into the mixer.  You are now in auto-pilot. Do not change anything major unless the performance or venue dictates a change.  From here you coast and make things better with ever smaller adjustments.  Time to add the glitter.

For most situations the process above will set you up in a comfortable area where things can all be heard at balanced levels, not too loud and instruments do not compete for the same frequency space.  For this step it is better to think  of sound from low frequencies on the left and higher frequencies on the right.  In many ways like a piano;  lower notes are on the left and increasingly higher notes as we go to the right keys.  Have your drummer hit one of the cymbals really hard with no other noise and see if it produces tones or frequencies like the lowest key on a piano.  It cannot.  It is in a much higher range.  Have the drummer punch the kick drum a few times and see if it makes frequencies as hi as the cymbals just did.  This is a simple explanation that gets applied to all instruments and vocals being blended into a smooth mix.   When using EQ, you can shift the range of frequencies for each sound so it does not compete or collide with other sounds in similar frequency ranges.  Often vocals and guitars are in neighboring groups.  Try using EQ to edge one signal a litter higher in the frequency group and the other a little lower.  So they still sound good and accurate like they are on stage, but just enough so the listener can more easily hear the two sources as individual elements in a wider landscape.  Similar situation with kick drums and the bass guitar.  Both occupy the very low end of our hearing spectrum.  If they are both deep in the low end, they might not be discernable as two performances.  You can try lowering the low end EQ a little on the bass guitar for example, but add some hi-mids and or a little hi end frequencies so the strings pop in the mix a little when struck.  It will still support the low end for that punch, but you will be able to hear the individual bass notes better without a lot of added low-end volume that can cloud or muddy up the low end.

Plain and simple, the lyrics are about my daughter.  As a proud parent, I am often overwhelmed by  the innocence, beauty and unlimited potential when holding a new-born in your arms.  Not to get weird here, but there is nothing like it.  As I cradle, rock or talk baby-talk, it is difficult not to think about the new life I am holding, how fascinating they are and to drift into thoughts of what will happen in their future and how we can make that path easier.  This song also features Gary Jefferson on vocals.  You will hear him a lot on my tunes, and he was the vocalist in the demo recording the band did in the studio.  He has pulled me into a number of projects and I often ask him to help me with mine.  There are so many musicians I depend on and work with regularly.  I will introduce you to them and the work they have done in future posts.

Most of the music is sequenced along with the drum tracks, I play the rhythm guitar parts and had a friend come in for the guitar solo, while my wife adds back-up vocals.  All grown up and with children of her own, the meaning of this song gets deeper and closer to the heart every year.

“Slick as A Dream” (c) MSK 1988

Slick as a dream, this beauty machine

Sharp and so cold, young – just as old.

Moving so sweet you can feel the heat

Smiles of sorrow can’t wait ‘til tomorrow.

One thing you’ve learned: love has to be earned

Pain must be shared, embraced if you dare.

Nightmares are gone, but she carries on

Can’t forget her, love lasts forever.

Tender love cries slowly hypnotize

The helpless day now melting away.

And if you dare she’ll become aware

Give those who bleed whatever they need.

She knows exactly who she is.

And exactly what she needs.