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Turntables are particularly delicate devices and even if they were initially set up perfectly they are unlikely to stay like this for very long. A little attention now and again, however, can keep them sounding their best.
Before you Start
Before you begin tampering with the delicate mechanics of your turntable it is worth considering a couple of things:
The physical placement of the turntable is the first thing to consider. Unlike most audio equipment nowadays turntables are mechanical by nature and consequently can be greatly affected by vibration. The sensitivity of a turntable to the minute grooves of a record (a few thousandths of an inch) is such that any displacement caused by vibration will be easily heard through your speakers. Bad vibration will tend to muddy the whole sound - the separation between the instruments will become less defined.
How you approach this will depend on your set up. Is your turntable the type with suspension, is it sitting on a shelf or on a table, what is the base made of? Try touching the foundation that your turntable is sitting on. Ideally there should be no movement at all. Placing a glass of water on it while playing a record can sometimes give a good visual indication of vibration. Any kind of give will result in serious vibration and a greatly inferior production of sound. This will be particularly bad if the turntable has no form of independent suspension.
The other thing to consider is what the floor beneath the base is composed of. Wooden flooring is OK if it is solid enough but boards which flex should be avoided. Stone or concrete are probably the best materials (or if cost is no object, you could try marble!).
The turntable itself may also be a source of unwanted vibration. Check that all screws that hold parts together are firmly (but not over) tightened. If certain screws are provided for adjustment purposes then consult the manual and adjust them accordingly. If the vibration seems to be linked to unevenness (or manufacturer tolerance) between surfaces try inserting a small amount of some kind of damping agent between them. Blu Tac will do if you don't have anything better.
The next thing to check is how level your turntable sits. When a turntable
goes out of level, generally the platter bearings performance and the
arms dynamics, specifically anti-skate, are negatively affected. Because
the platter bearing is round in a round sleeve, unlevelness alters how the
bearing floats the bushing (except cases like the Well Tempered and the Versa
Dynamics); the better the bearing, the less the effect. Sonic problems due
to being out of level are greatest with a pivoting arm; least with a linear
tracking arm under motor control.
Be sure your stand, tables platter and tone arm mounting board are on
the level - use an accurate spirit level. If the platter is out of level,
adjust the suspension (in the case of a suspendedsub chassis design). If the
arm board is not level (which means the arm pivot is not vertical), either
return it to your dealer for repair or re-level it yourself by shimming between
the mounting board and its support.
About the only thing you can do here is to replace (or top up) the bearing
oil. Follow the manufacturers recommendation as to how often and with
what. Lift out the platter, sop up the old oil with a lint-free cloth (or
suck it out with a clean eyedropper or syringe), then pour in the new, being
careful not to make a mess by overfilling the well. (The shaft of the bearing
takes up most of the room in the bearing well.)
(Tip: Most oil bearings will be improved sonically by a stiffer [higher viscosity]
oil. However, if the motor drive system is not very robust, this stiffer oil
could slow the system down. Most manufacturers sell their own high viscosity
oil; on the other hand, experimentation can be fun.)
Some belts are meant to be talcum-powdered, some to be slick; some are meant
to be soft-faced (matte rather than shiny), some to be clean. Check with the
manufacturer about the need and method for cleaning to maintain proper traction.
Some tables, because of their motors, require slippage to start up and slow
down smoothly so belts on these most likely are talced. Years of slippage
will wear the talc off and then start to buff the belt shiny. In a case like
that, replace the belt with a manufacturers original.
Platter speed is sometimes controlled by what part of the pulley the belt
rides on, so be sure to get this right. Belts can be finicky about just where
they ride on platter and pulley be patient. Everything that is on the
table when playing a record platter, mat, record, clamp must
also be on the table when you install or adjust the belt on a suspended sub chassis
table. On a two-part platter, place the outer ring upside down on the inner
and lay everything else on top. This will accurately weight the suspension
while allowing you to view the belt on the pulleys.
Theres not much you can do in the way of adjusting a non-suspension
table, except to regard its entire support system as being a part of the tables
suspension. Refer back to that section and consider even more strongly how
to improve the foundations vibration protection.
Suspension designs are all a little different so to adjust your suspended
table, follow the manufacturers instructions. As suggested earlier,
if you arent familiar with working on your table, find someone who is
an expert at it. Tweaks peculiar to each record player which can significantly
benefit the sound are discovered by users and fine-tuners over time.
If, you adjust the springs, you need to gain access to the underside of the
table, raise it up on four soda cans. Everything that is on the table when
you play a record platter, platter mat, record clamp, and record (use
one you dont care about) must also be on it when you tune the
springs so the weight (and therefore position) is accurate.
Generally, you rotate the entire spring to adjust the suspensions up
and down motion, or rotate the nut at one end of the spring to adjust height
The arm is pretty much maintenance and adjustment-free. Snug up the arm mounting
screws. Check, on a typical pivoting arm, that the bearings are sound: grasp
the head shell and very, very gently attempt to move the arm back and forth
along the length of the tube and rotationally. If you can feel any free play
at the headshelll, youve got a serious problem get it fixed or
replaced. Exceptions are the Well-Tempered or unipivot arms where by doing
this you are causing it to ride up off the pivot.
If you have a viscous damping trough, be sure it contains the correct amount
of damping fluid; it doesnt evaporate but it does migrate. If there
is dust and lint in there, clean it out and refill with the manufacturers
damping material. Also, in the case of a variable paddle system like the SMEs,
reassess whether you are using the correct paddle. Too much damping will make
the sound tight, but will lose lots of fine detail; too little and the sound
will be open and relaxed but also more hazy and smeary.
(Tip: To minimise arm tube resonances [which can add much high frequency
hardness to the sound], damp the arm tube with a brushed-on coating of liquid
latex [thin cosmetic grade for theatrical use is good], or heatshrink tubing,
or a non-hardening putty like Blu-Tac.)
Youre trying to align the cartridge stylus with the record groove in
as close a replication as possible to how the cutting stylus originally cut
the record groove. Youre trying to untrace with your playback stylus
what was traced with the cutting stylus the closer the alignment of
the one mirrors the alignment of the original, the more accurately it can
read the grooves. Alignment needs to be optimised in three different planes.
However, it cannot be equally perfect in each of the three, so it must be
optimised for an overall best balance or compromise. Final adjustment must
always be done by ear and over an extended period of listening time. Just
to add to the complexity, each record is cut a little differently. Here again,
optimize for an overall balance of good sound over a wide range of records
(or adjust VTA for each record, which some people do if they have an easy
VTA adjustment on their arm).
The three alignment planes are as follows. (Please note that it is the stylus,
not the cartridge, that is being aligned.) First, viewed from above, the cartridges
arcing movement across the record must maintain the stylus in the same relation
to the groove as that of the cutting styluss straight-line tracking;
this is Lateral Tracking Angle, or Tangency. Viewed from head on, the stylus
must be perpendicular in the groove so as not to favour one groove wall, and
therefore one channel, over the other wall/channel; this is Azimuth. Viewed
from the side, the stylus must sit correctly in the groove, at the same angle
as the original cutter; this is Vertical Tracking/Stylus Rake Angle. (VTA,
however, varies from record to record. Therefore, this alignment must be set
by ear, even more than is the case with the other adjustments.)
Also confirm that the distance from the centre of the arm pillar (the upright
post) to the spindle (usually fixed by the arm mounting board) is correct
as this will affect the ability to achieve the tangency adjustments. This
"L dimension varies with every pivoted arm check your manual or
with the manufacturer.
Make sure that the arms wires, wire clips, and solder joints are in
very good condition. At minimum, clean the contact between cartridge pins
and wire clips by removing and replacing each clip. Holding the clips with
needle-nose pliers can make this easier, but be careful that you dont
strain the wires where they join the clip. Check your cartridge mounting screws.
Because these must be snugged tight, plastic screws are no good. Aluminium,
brass, or stainless steel crews, provided they are new and the threads arent
distorted, are fine. Allen head screws are great because the Allen wrenches
used on them provide excellent leverage. To exert sufficient tightening force
on a slotted head screw, you need a screwdriver with at least a 3/4"
diameter handle jewelers screwdrivers just dont do it.
Tape the platter securely to the plinth. If it can rotate during setup, your
alignment measurements wont be accurate. Just be sure taping does not
alter its height or levelness. If this is not already done, mount the cartridge
in the are and the headsharee tonearm. Theareell screwsare be finger-tightened just enough that the cartridge cannot fall off but is
still loose enough that the cartridge is easily moved around. Work whenever
possible with the styluss safety cap in place.
Set tracking force at nominal, then do the tangency alignment procedures,
then the azimuth. Do not deviate from this sequence as each step affects the
subsequent one change the order and the setup will be wrong.
This adjustment on the are counterbalances the weight of arm and cartridge.
At this point, use your tracking force gauge and setting tracking force according
to your cartridge instructions final adjustment will be done later
by ear. If you do not have a tracking force gauge, but the arm does have a
calibrated counterweight, defeat the arms anti-skate mechanism or set
it to zero. Set the counterweight so the arm is level and balanced. Be very
careful of the unprotected stylus you cannot do this with its safety
cap in place. Once the arm is balanced, lock it in its cradle and, using the
calibrated counterweight, set the tracking force according to your cartridges
Follow the instructions in your owners manual and those provided with
your alignment gauge different gauges use slightly different methods.
As you square up the cartridge body with the gauges markings, be sure
that the cartridge sides are square or your alignment will be wrong. When
all adjustments are correct, carefully snug down the cartridge mounting screws.
Keeping a firm grip on cartridge and are together so nothing shifts,
delicately tighten each screw down a turn or so, then repeat until tight.
Snugging down one screw all the way before tightening the others is almost
certain to twist the cartridge out of alignment. However careful youve
been, always check the alignment again after tightening.
The old mirror alignment technique for azimuth may work fine for some cartridges,
but a hand-made moving coil cartridge cannot control this alignment well enough.
The stylus may be several degrees away from perpendicular to the top of the
There are two accurate ways to adjust azimuth. One is using your ears for
the best sound. Rotate the cartridge in tiny, tiny increments, in different
directions, getting a feel for the area where you get greatest stage width,
depth, and so forth. The drawback to this approach is that, until you develop
a good deal of experience with it, you can be confused by the changes in sound,
so be patient and work carefully it will give you the best results.
The only remaining foolproof method requires using a voltmeter and a test
record. Set the azimuth so that crosstalk at 1,000 Hz is the same for both
Vertical Tracking Angle
Unless your cross talk has a special VTA adjuster, adjusting arm height can
be a major nuisance, and particularly so if the arm pillar is held at a selected
height only by a set screw. In these designs, altering height means releasing
the setscrew, which usually results in the arm pillar dropping precipitously,
leaving you in the dark about the original point from which you are now trying
to add or decrease height. (I speak from bitter experience.) Jam the gap between
pillar neck and collar with business cards so the pillar cannot fall when
released or find/make a block that fits between the arm mount and the underside
of the arm structure. See yocross talkarm manual for its recommendations on adjusting
arm pillar height.
The best approach is to tune-in VTA gradually by listening to music. You
know the arm needs to be lowered at the arm pillar when the overall sound
is hard and bright, with thin bass or no deep bass, edgy highs, and harsh
midrange (of course, this could also be tracking force which is too light).
Distortion obscures low level details between the musical; notes so dynamic
range is reduced. Transient attacks may be too sharp. Raise the arm when the
sound is dull and damped, the highs rolled off, the lows muddy and lacking
definition, and transient attacks are dull. Mind you, this sounds an awful
lot like the effects of changes in tracking force (too light is edgy, too
heavy is heavy and dull). They are different sounding but hard to explain.
Start with the arm a little low and very gradually raise it, first to where
it is parallel to the record, and then so the back of the cartridge is tilting
up. Keep track of your settings so you can return to the one you like best
where everything snaps into focus. The range of adjustments can be quite broad,
as much as 3/4" or even more (at the arm pivot). Play with the full range
so you know what it sounds like and dont be diffident.
Antiskate Force (pivoting arms only)
This applies an opposing, balancing force to the natural inward drag of a
pivoting arm while playing. Left uncontrolled, the stylus would push up against
the inner groove wall, causing distortion both from mistracking and a cantilever
skewed in relation to the cartridge generator. To set, lower the stylus down
near the label of a record with a wide run-out to it. Increase antiskate until
the arm starts to slowly drift outward, away from the label. Again, this should
be finalised by ear as you listen to music. If image placement is a little
off-center, or if things dont seem to be locked in solidly, experiment
with antiskate. Also, watch the stylus when you set it into a groove. Does
it move to the right or left relative to the cartridge body? This indicates
too much or too little antiskating.
Youve got three adjustments roughed in at this point: tracking force, VTA, and azimuth. Its a matter of reiteration to anti skating the sound. The change in sound with each of these individual adjustments can be similar. Its therefore necessary, in optimising all three, to experimentally move from one type of adjustments to the next, then to the next, in order to balance the optimisation for all three. Listen to female voice as you work; got for the maximum vocal character and a tactile sense of a person.
You want to start to deviate from the cartridges recommended tracking force by small increments. You are trying to put the electromagnetic system in its most linear position. Too much tracking force and youre moving the coils (or moving magnet) out of the centre position of their range. A tiny increment may be 100ths of a gram or less; but try as much as 0.2 of a gram deviation above and below the manufacturers basic recommendation in your experiments. Dont worry about record damage from heavy tracking; most record damage is actually caused by mistracking in the middle-to-high frequencies with too little tracking force rather than with too heavy tracking. (Besides, 0.2 gram over is not heavy tracking at all.) Thats providing that the stylus is reasonably clean and in good condition. If youre getting mistracking at the low (lightest) end of the range and yet the low range is generally sounding the best (and on moderate signals, not The 1812 Overture), then chances are you have either a dirty stylus, a bad record, an accumulation of crud in your cartridge, or a cartridge thats getting old.
Changes in tracking force can change how you want VTA and azimuth adjusted. If azimuth was initially adjusted by ear, experiment with it. However, if it was set with instrumentation, leave it be and instead play around with VTA and tracking force. I sometimes think of this process as being a little like tightening down a series of screws you do each a turn or two at a time and keep going round and round until youve got them all evenly snugged down and the surfaces mated without warping. Keep on patiently adjusting until you recognise that the sound is right and just locks into place.
(Tip: Some people find that degaussing [Fluxbuster] of a moving coil cartridge is recommended as often as every day, even if the cartridge hasnt been used.)
OK, youre now basically done. Final-most tuning will take days or weeks
and is a matter of listening to the system in a relaxed way. Eventually little
aspects of sound from one record to another will begin to annoy out of the
overall good sound. This may range from too light tracking force to VTA. (Most
good cartridges are temperature sensitive. When too warm, they get muddy,
when too cold, they can get strident. Keep up with this as the seasons change.)
Excluding people who adjust VTA with every record, most people will be very
happy with a VTA position which is a good overall compromise for the records
that are their favourites. So turn on the system, let it warm up, sit back
and relax, and enjoy listening to the music even as you keep one ear peeled
for further refinements.
One last, and important, word on stylus cleaning. There are multiple recommended stylus cleaning procedures, ranging from ultrasonics, manually brushing, even using sandpaper, and with various solutions-anything from the proprietary Freon-based solutions to just alcohol or alcohol and water, as in record cleaning solutions. These can have an effect on the shape and condition of contaminants left on the stylus. With some modern cartridges with very fine-line styli, it might be necessary to clean the stylus as often as once per LP side. Different methods of cleaning may result in different sound a more or less frequent need for cleaning. Experiment with different methods some sort of cleaning is unavoidable.