Your turntable’s cartridge is the most crucial part of your turntable setup. As the mediator between the needle’s vibrations in the record and the electromagnetic waves which produce sound, the cartridge is the center of your turntable’s sound production.
A record player’s groove can be less than double a hair’s breadth. This means that for your turntable to make the best sounds, with accurate tracking, that will not cause damage to either your stylus or the record itself, the cartridge alignment has to be on point.
Aligning your cartridge means making sure that all the elements of your headpiece fit properly and are optimized for tracking in your record. These include the stylus, cartridge, as well as the elements that deal with the cartridge, including the tracking force, anti-skating, and the counter-weight balance.
The Vertical Tracking Force (VTF) is the setting which designates the amount of pressure the needle applies to the record. While it is called force, it is actually a measure of the tonearm’s suspension and how much it can be affected by gravity.
Your turntable’s user manual should give you a manufacturer recommended range of the tracking force. Often this will be between 1.5g and 2g, but you should always double check.
A tracking force that is too light will not allow the stylus to track properly in the grooves, increasing the risk that the stylus could pop out and skip across the surface. On the other hand, a tracking force that is too heavy could rub the record with too much surface area causing a loss in performance-quality and long-term wear of the record. This may be counter-intuitive, but having too light a tracking force could cause more wear-and-tear damage to the record and stylus, than having a heavy tracking pressure.
Working in the range given by the manufacturer, you can experiment with the tracking force. Do this by adjusting the tracking pressure while listening to the variations in sound reproduction. This is a bit like tuning an instrument by ear. Mark down the tracking pressure at which you have a clear strong sound, and set your turntable there.
The overhang refers to the distance that the tip of the stylus extends beyond the central spindle of the headshell. Essentially the overhand aligns the
cartridge to the record’s arc. To adjust this, use an overhang gauge. Sometimes your model will come with a gauge or the schematic of one you can make yourself. Stylus overhang is often around 15-16mm. If your model came with its cartridge and stylus premounted, then your overhang has already been pre-set to factory standards.
Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) can also be called Stylus Rake Angle (SRA). The VTA refers to the angle of the stylus to the record’s groove. To adjust VTA you need to raise or lower the tone arm from behind.
In order to achieve Neutral VTA, the tonearm should be parallel to the platter. Negative VTA means that the back has been lowered, and the cartridge slopes down toward the back. Positive VTA means that the arm is raised in the back, and the cartridge slopes down toward the from of the headshell.
For the most ideal, lossless sound reproduction, the angle of the stylus on your turntable would be the exact angle that was used to cut the vinyl when the record was made. This angle changes from one vinyl manufacturer to another, so it’s up to you to choose the best sound for your own playback tastes.
Again, this will be trial and error as you tune the arm to your particular tastes and specifications. Start with a neutral VTA, and then move the tonearm slightly up and down until you get the desired sound. You might have more luck with a negative VTA than a positive one.
You want to achieve the most balanced and clear sound you can. As you raise the VTA to a more positive setting, you will notice the playback emphasizing the high end of the soundstage, and as you lower the VTA to a negative setting, you will hear that the turntable produces a more emphasized bass.
When you look at the cartridge from the front, you will see a left versus right tilt of the cartridge body. This is the Azimuth. You do not necessarily want your cartridge to be perfectly level. Aligning the Azimuth means making sure that the stylus fits most correctly into the groove.
Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to do this step just by eyeballing it. For one, styli are not often mounted perfectly perpendicular to the cartridge, so while it seems like a simple cartridge tilt adjustment, you will also have to adjust for the bias of the stylus attached to the cartridge. You will probably need to use a magnifying glass of some kind either way because being able to see the bias of the stylus without magnification will be nearly impossible.
Luckily, there are gadgets called cartridge analyzers that you can find to take all the guesswork out of this step.
- The Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer Test Record is a great tool for getting the best performance out of your tonearm and turntable.
- To experience music reproduction at highest quality levels from analog records it is required to achieve optimal positioning of the pickup stylus in the record groove. When used in conjunction with the Musical Surroundings Fozgometer Azimuth Range Meter (sold separately), this LP pressed on heavy audiophile grade vinyl lets you make the proper tonearm adjustments.
- Clearaudio Azimuth Optimizer Test Record LP-ideal for use w/Fosgate Fozgometer
Using the Azimuth tester, you will be able to quantify the measure of cartridge separation. In addition, the cartridge analyzer’s input and output functions will allow it to stay live as you tune and adjust the Azimuth so that you will know when you have optimal contact.
Anti-skating is the turntable’s built-in counter-force that keeps the tonearms from being pulled into the record’s rotation. Conventionally, you can adjust anti-skating by setting to the same pressure as your tracking force. There are, however, many differing views on this.
Some advice says to the put the stylus in the groove and play while watching the front to see if the cartridge shows a tendency to move inward or outward. Adjust the anti-skating until the cartridge stays stable.
Aligning the cartridge is a necessary step to optimizing your turntable’s performance.
Remember to check:
- Tracking force
- Verticle Tracking Angle
As a final measure, before you adjust the anti-skating, go back after you have made a few other adjustments, such as VTA and Azimuth, and check that your tracking force still works well with the other alignments. This is the perfect time to fine tune. Then adjust anti-skating, as mentioned above, and you will find your turntable playing better than ever.
Were you hoping this would help produce a better sound, but it didn’t? Consider our post on how to tune a record player. That should provide you some other tips you can try to get a better sound.
If none of this is working, maybe it’s a good time for a new record player altogether. Are you on a budget? Read our article on the best record player under 100 for a great budget friendly device. Or, if you are in need of a higher-end masterpiece, check out these best record players under $1000
Any other tips or tricks that you found when aligning your turntable cartridge? Please let us know in the comments below!