Male And Female Audio Settings? No Thanks.

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A microphone company recently posed the question to the audience, ” Should microphones have ‘male’ and ‘female’ settings?

There are many reasons male and female settings don’t exist… and shouldn’t exist.

The most obvious reason is not all men have low voices and not all women have high voices. Beyond that, what about using these mic settings for other applications such as children, animals, or ANY instrument? The terms “male” and “female” are irrelevant and therefore confusing.

Second, I don’t want a tonal adjustment on a microphone itself. The main reason: a microphone is usually in another room. On sessions with a lot of players or an expensive tracking room, I’m not going to mess around with settings on a mic (if I need high pass or pads it’s set beforehand). If I’m looking for sound/character differences, I’m going to have 2 or more mics setup instead. That way, I can A/B (compare mics) in a matter of seconds without interrupting an assistant or needing to leave the room.

Third, how do you adjust a mic setting if the mic is out of reach? Engineers love to try mics on everything – not just what a manufacturer suggests. Mics that sound great on soprano/alto vocals also tend to sound great on violins (in my experience). But, if I have a mic placed above a violinist or hung it may not be feasible (or safe) to reach the mic during soundcheck to adjust. I’m not going to bring a mic down if I’ve been tweaking mic placement by the inch.

In theory, you could do the tonal switch digitally without needing to touch the mic. But, if the difference in tonal character between two settings on a mic are drastically different, it makes more sense to have two mics because the optimal mic placement for one setting might not be the same as another.

Lastly, any physical switches on mics are a liability. They’re the most likely thing to break, become noisy, and they’re not the easiest to repair.

Do these kinds of setting cause offense?

While these labels may offend some (for various reasons), my concern is labels like “male” or “female” remove objectivity for an engineer. I understand the logic that wording can guide an engineer to use a mic a particular way. But, using “male/female” actually creates more confusion than it guides particularly if you’re using the mic on anything but a traditional voice.

From a creativity standpoint, you’ve already primed the user to think of this microphone in a certain way (ie, Vocals: Man, Woman). You might be less likely to try it on a snare or another instrument that would benefit from what it’s trying to do. When you think about setting “1 vs 2” or “A vs B” with no bias (conscious or unconscious) you can create in your own mind what each of those parameters means in terms of sound.

Additionally, we already use “male” and “female” for connectors in the audio world. That in itself could lead to confusion when written on a mic.

Labels and presets may force you to not use your ears

If I don’t know how any piece of audio gear sounds (or what a feature does), I’m going learn by listening. It doesn’t matter what the labelling is or what the manual says the feature is for. I’m going to listen and draw my own conclusions about what I perceive happening to the sound. I make a mental note of what I hear, too, so I can apply it in future scenarios.

Just like we learn words, we develop a catalog of sounds in the mind. Experienced engineers can anticipate what mic to use and nearly exactly where they want it placed before they even hear an instrument. Or, they can hear an instrument and have ideas what mic and channel strip might create an interesting sound. The only time you won’t have that sound memory of a microphone – and any of its parameters – is the first time you use it. Once you figure it out the problem goes away.

If a mic feature needed a label, I would seriously consider Sound 1 and 2. Or A and B. Or Transient on/off. All of those imply there are two settings and something is going to happen when you change it. Those labels could be viewed as ambiguous but it’s also what leads to creativity and experimentation. Show me a frequency response of both in the manual, a short description of how they are different, and call it a day. Use your ears to figure out the rest.

All in all… it’s a bad idea

The reason no other mic manufacturers are addressing gender issues with mics (ie, that there should be male and female mics) is because it’s not a problem to be addressed.

Just about every mic manufacturer in existence has different models with different sounds and characteristics. Some do it with switchable capsules, even. Different mics have different strengths and that’s where marketing comes in. If a mic sounds great on tenors or on sopranos, it’s a selling point, not a product feature.

We don’t usually have “male” and “female” settings for audio gear for the same reasons we don’t have presets based on age or race. Sound just doesn’t show these characteristics.

At the end of the day, the intended use of a microphone (what it was designed for or it’s strengths) is a matter for the marketing materials, not the product itself. Let the users play how they want to.

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