Analog is mechanical. Whether you’re playing tape or spinning vinyl, moving parts are involved in getting sound to reach your ears.
A turntable’s basic function is to pick up the vibrations, emitted by the grooves of your records, via the tonearm and cartridge.The stylus then measures and converts these vibrations into an electrical signal that is amplified into sweet, sweet music, via your loudspeakers. In order for your turntable to work well, it must read only the “good” vibrations. The tiniest unnecessary movements will cause your needle to pick up distortion that will muddy your sound. Even the movement of the turntable’s motor can contribute towards unwanted distortion! The basic difference between good and great turntables is their ability to cope with external vibration, but it’s not only a question of how much you spend on your gear. No turntable will be able to perform at its best if it is not set up properly. In other words, there are ways to make your gear sound better, no matter what your budget is. Here are a few practical tips that will help you get the most out of your turntable setup.
Isolate Your Turntable
Think about it. Phono cartridges are incredibly sensitive transducers. They don’t just convert the microscopic grooves of your vinyl records into sound. Cartridges can pick up ALL vibrations, including those caused by footsteps and all other unwanted movements that reach your tonearm. Those unwanted movements result in distortion which muddies the sound. Let’s look at a few easy improvements:
- Are your speakers located on the same surface as your turntable? If yes, you’ll wanna change that immediately. Speaker vibrations will go straight to the stylus, creating a noise floor that’ll just kill your sound needlessly. Using one of those Crosley suitcases with the built in speakers? Consider investing in a real turntable. Crosley make plastic toys that may look neat but sound horrible. The heavy ceramic cartridges used on their flimsy plastic tonearms will carve up your records real good. It’s not snobbery, it’s straight talk. Wanna fuck up your $40 lps on a $100 toy? Go right ahead. Your money, your records.
- Always separate speakers and turntable, kill all vibrations! Are your speakers sitting on the same surface as your turntable? If so, your sound will suffer as a result. Using speaker stands or simply placing them on a separate surface will yield an immediate improvement in your sound. Do your footsteps or your upstairs neighbors make your needle jump? Consider buying a shelf and placing your turntable on that. IKEA Lack shelves do the job, cheap and useful. Vibrations=bad. Isolate, it makes a difference!
- Remove your dust cover! Dust cover= unnecessary vibration, where sound is concerned. Its purpose is to keep dust, cats and kids off your records. If you don’t have those issues, remove the dust cover altogether when your turntable is in use.
Surface dust and static are the enemies of vinyl, especially during the winter months or other dry periods. Static electricity attracts dust to the surface of your records and prevents proper playback. Your stylus will wind up accumulating all the surface dust as your record spins, preventing it from working properly. The easiest, most cost effective solution is to get an anti-static brush. Before each spin, just run your brush against the surface of your vinyl, it’ll make a difference. Running a humidifier in the room where your turntable is located will also help cut down the amount of static electricity in your listening area.
- Wash your records before spinning them, even the new ones. Check out our VINYL 101 article on cleaning your records. A stylus knows the difference between clean grooves and ones with schmutz lodged in them. Schmutz doesn’t sound good.
- Make sure your turntable is on a level surface! In order for the stylus to properly read the grooves of your records, it needs to get as deeply into those grooves as possible. The deeper it can read the grooves, the more detail will show up in your sound. Making certain that your records are playing on a turntable that is perfectly level is a basic setup necessity. Download any of the free bubble level apps for smartphones, they’ll do the job. Make certain that your turntable is perfectly level, both horizontally and vertically. All set? Good,next step.
- Having a properly calibrated and installed tonearm/cartridge combo is an essential aspect of good sound. You want your stylus to read as close to 100% of the information contained in the grooves. Besides messing up your sound, an improperly balanced tonearm/cartridge setup can damage your records. “Eyeballing it” isn’t really the way to go but for now, try and make sure that your tonearm is barely floating over the record, heavy tracking carves up your grooves! Details like tracking force, VTA, cartridge alignment and anti-skate really do require a separate, more technical article. I’ll write a VINYL 101 article on it eventually, maybe even upload a vid on our YouTube channel showing you how it’s done. For now, Google is your friend.
NEXT: VINYL 101: Originals vs Reissues- A Guide to Buying Records