Sound Advice – Setting up a turntable
It's time to work slowly and calmly
There are very few parallels in audio equipment to the construction and setup of a record player so, this being the case, an entire sound advice has been dedicated to it.
Setting up a turntable is a variable process- no two are exactly the same and there will be further variables depending on your partnering equipment. As such, this is not an exhaustive guide to the business and neither does it claim to be. It instead focuses on factors of turntable setup that apply to pretty much any model from the most to the least expensive. If you can successfully hit these markers, you will be well on the way to effective vinyl playback.
This is – obviously – an area where there is so much variance in turntable design, there is no one answer to what you should do in terms of correct assembly but there are some pretty significant dos and don'ts to pay attention to. The first, by rights, needs to be projected by laser onto the moon because it really is a message for the ages:
READ THE MANUAL!
I am well aware that as a towering monument to masculinity (and I make the point of selecting a specific gender here because women don't seem to have quite the same mental inhibitor to paying attention to supporting documentation) you've studiously ignored the manuals for all your other equipment but a turntable isn't like your other equipment. Failure to proceed in a logical fashion through the instructions leaves you at the risk of damaging your new purchase and at the very least finding the whole process far, far harder than it needs to be. Some enterprising companies have put YouTube videos up on how to assemble their products and these can be well worth watching.
If there's one thing you take away from this section, that should be it, but there are other things to pay attention to as well. Most affordable turntables will come with the tools required to put them together but it never hurts to check what you need before you reach a crucial point and find you don't have the tool required to carry out the task in hand.
Equally importantly – don't rush. If there is a defined limit to the amount of time you have to complete the task and you feel that limit is in any way tight, don't do it. Rushing is not a happy partner to devices that are fragile and require a calm and methodical approach to putting them together. I appreciate that few of us have a truly open ended timetable to devote 'as long as it takes' as a time frame but try to make sure you have a clear hour at the very least.
Now the turntable itself is basically assembled, it is time to get it correctly setup.
Are you level?
Vinyl is a finnicky medium and for best results, the playing surface of the record needs to be flat. How flat? Well, this depends slightly on who you talk to. As an example of fastidious British workmanship, my entire house has a three degree lean from back to front which means that everything placed on the floor starts off with this level of lean applied to it. Under these conditions, getting to less than one degree off in any particular direction is pretty much good enough. For many of my more fastidious colleagues, nothing less than dead on will do.
The reasons for doing this are simple enough. A serious lean on the platter will impart irregular turning force – like a badly setup children's roundabout. In extreme cases this can impart pitch instability and make things sound very dodgy indeed.
In terms of levelling a record player, the most effective thing you can do is to level the whole surface that the turntable is on rather than randomly stuffing things under the feet. If the entire surface is level, you have a consistent basis to make every other adjustment on the turntable a consistent one rather than 'aiming off' for a bodged adjustment somewhere else. The easiest way of doing this is to combine levelling with isolation – which we'll come to in a moment but as one slight addendum, if your turntable has suspension, you can use this to correct minor levels of lean.
Are you isolated?
As we have noted before, turntables are sensitive to the outside world. As the stylus in a cartridge is a device that turns vibrations into an electrical signal, any additional vibration at the stylus will be turned into unwanted signal. Isolating the turntable means that the only signals you hear are from the record itself.
By far the easiest way of doing this is a wall shelf. Mounted on an external wall, it is largely free from any form of interference that might be going on around it. Wall shelves go from around £100 and as they don't really wear out, they can be considered a sunk cost. More ornate models are available and models with higher weight handling are also available if you need.
If it isn't practical to put up a shelf in the space you have, there are some other options. One of the most effective can also be amongst the cheapest. If you can get hold of two paving slabs (or work surface tops) and place an inflated bicycle inner tube between them, you wind up with a superbly well isolated system – if not the prettiest or lightest one going. Dedicated – and rather smaller – items are available from a few manufacturers, with Pro-Ject and Avid making especially effective examples. If all this seems a bit excessive, isolating feet can be a cost effective and compact option too.
Are you aligned?
If you are buying a turntable with a cartridge that has been fitted at the factory, this is unlikely to be a serious issue but if you are fitting a cartridge to a record player, you will need to make sure it is aligned for the record player. The good news is that this isn't physically difficult to do. The not so good news is that every deck and arm combination will have a slightly different alignment but the equally good news is that pretty much any alignment protractor you could ever need is on the internet so the costs are negligible – just remember to print at 100%. There is more than one alignment system in use as well so if in doubt, check with the manufacturer to see if they have any preferences.
Alignment is something that gets people weirdly argumentative with advocates of one system frequently claiming that other techniques are compromises or somehow flawed. The reality is that all methods are a compromise to keep distortion as low as possible so select the one that works the best for you and your equipment. Take your time and make sure that the cart is correctly aligned – your records and your ears will thank you.
Are your weights correct?Just as important to the business of replay is the tracking force of the cartridge and given that most manufacturers don't ship their turntables with the counterweight attached, this is something that needs to be set. Now, when we discuss the relative weights that a cartridge tracks at and note that the weights involved rarely exceed two grams, it can be easy to assume that it doesn't matter too much. When you are dealing with grooves thinner than a human hair and a stylus to suit, you will in fact find that this translates to a force at the stylus point of several hundred pounds per square inch – in other words, it matters!
Setting the weight is most easily done with a stylus force gauge This is a device that the stylus is placed on and that will give you the overall weight with which it is pushing down. Decent examples go from about £20 and they are worth it based on the simple savings in cartridge and record wear. It is worth noting that many cartridges are supplied with a high and low figure – a boundary rather than an exact weight. In these cases, it is usually best to set it in the middle and experiment if you are feeling brave.
Is your arm level?
Once again, depending on the turntable you own, this might not be something you have a huge amount of control over but requires attention nonetheless. In a perfect world, once the arm has been lowered onto the record, it should be level from front to back. This measurement is the vertical tracking angle – often shortened to VTA – and on many arms can be adjusted by means of a collar on the arm itself or in some cases – notably Rega – a spacer physically added to the arm base.
Altering the angle that the stylus hits the record will once again affect the bass and treble, depending on whether the arm is tail up or tail down. The amount of adjustment that an arm will allow for does vary so if you are matching an arm and a cartridge, do check the size of the cart and make sure you can get the necessary elevation on the arm. If the arm has no adjustment, you will need to choose a cartridge that naturally allows for a level VTA.
A final point to check is the azimuth. This is the angle that the cartridge physically sits in the groove when viewed from head on – it almost goes without saying that it should be as close to zero degrees as possible. Most turntables you are likely to encounter at the start of your vinyl career will neither have the means to adjust this – and perhaps more importantly, have no means of being out of sync. If your azimuth is visibly out on a new turntable, especially if the cartridge came pre mounted, it would be best to immediately contact your dealer.
All this can sound deeply intimidating for a beginner but in reality, each process is logical and relatively straight forward. Don't rush, don't lose your temper and don't cut corners. The good news is that most turntables tend to stay where they are once you have put in the legwork and I promise you that the difference between a turntable that is correctly setup and exactly the same deck that has been casually plonked down somewhere should be enough to have you putting a little bit of effort into getting the best out of what you've got.
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