While not all record players have all these tuning options available, I want to cover the most common ways of tuning on some of the most popular models of record players. All of the record players mentioned are available on Amazon and have parts and manuals that are convenient to find.
What does it mean to “tune a turntable”?
You may ask, why bother? It’s not a violin, it’s a machine. You would be right in one way. Many of the features and functions of your record player are automatic. For instance, there is no wind-up to turn the band inside of the machine which is responsible for the record turning. However, it is an analog sound system, meaning that the quality of the sound relies on the machine’s ability to produce the right vibrations from the grooves of the record.
In other words, if your record player is calibrated badly, it can make your records sound like they are out of tune. This will be a different sound distortion from the skips and blips that I mentioned talked about in other posts. The entire record might sound like it has shifted down a key, like a piano that has been sitting in a basement untouched for five years. Having an out-of-tune record player can give a cool novelty in the short term, but chances are you want to hear your records the way that they are meant to sound.
Certain record players have more ability to tune than others, but there are some universal tune-ups. These include checking the age of your cartridge and replacing if it is too old, aligning your cartridge, optimizing your tracking pressure and anti-skating, and being aware of your spin motor and belt.
Clean your stylus
I wrote an in-depth article about cleaning your stylus here. It is very simple to do and might be all you need to restore the sound quality of your record player.
Replacing your cartridge
Always refer to the manual included with your own turntable to know if it is capable of being tuned.
If your record player is incompatible with many of these tuning parameters, you could try changing its cartridge to optimize playback quality. As the sole part responsible for turning the vinyl’s vibrations into organized music and sound, the cartridge is like the turntable’s brain. A faulty or old cartridge will not allow your turntable to produce good sounds.
When changing your turntable cartridge, make sure that the cartridge that you’re purchasing is compatible with your turntable. A good cartridge can last you a couple of years and is one of the most important factors on what kind of sound you get, so if you plan to drop money on any tune-up upgrades, assuming you already own speakers and a full set-up, this is where I would start.
A few notable cartridges:
Check your user manual before buying this, because it only fits P-Mount Turntables (also known as a TP4 Mount)! If it does fit your system, this is a good, standard needle at an amazing price point.
The primary attraction of the Shure M44-7 is its skip resistance. Originally produced for DJ’s use, with scratching in mind, this needle will track no matter what. What it lacks in sound sensitivity, it makes up for in reliability. It has good reviews and is prized for allowing great sound to come from less expensive turntables at a moderate price point.
An excellent and precise cartridge. The price point on this model is mid for a nice cartridge, but the sound quality is top of the line, with overwhelmingly positive reviews. The Shure M97xE promises accurate tracking, flat frequency response, and a diamond-tipped stylus. It also comes with a Headshell screwdriver, stylus cleaning brush, mounting hardware, and stylus guard. It fits any tonearm with standard mounting.
In order for your stylus to track in the grooves of the record perfectly perpendicularly, your cartridge should be attached to the headshell at the correct measurement. These ideal adjustments should be noted in your turntables operations manual.
Tracking Pressure and Anti-skating
To realign tracking pressure and anti-skating, set your anti-skating to 0. Then, adjust the counterweight until the tone-arm is balanced and floating just a little.
Adjust the tracking pressure to the manufacturer’s recommended setting, and then readjust the anti-skating to the same setting. In order to help alignment, you can also test your sound quality when setting the anti-skipping measure ¼ of a gram (.25 g) less than the tracking pressure.
If you think that your tracking pressure setting is somehow compromised, you can purchase an add-on gauge, which would help you to make sure of the pressure your stylus is putting on the record at all times. If this is something that interests you the Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Force Gauge is a simple and accurate tool that can help make sure that your tone-arm and stylus are always tracking at the right pressure.
Vertical Tracking Arm
Raising the rear height of the tracking arm will adjust the VTA. Raising it will allow higher notes to sound more clearly. If you raise it too high, though, you risk losing the bass.
Lowering the VTA Will give you stronger lower end and bass sounds. Lowering it too much will overpower the higher sounds.
Test out your preference by trial and error. Use an album that has a range of tones playing all at once, high tones with bass. When testing this out, avoid something like a piano album which would be primarily mid-tone, because you will not be able to hear as many distinctions.
Adjusting the VTA could change the effect of the tracking force, so go back and make sure that your tracking pressure setting still gives you your ideal sound. For instance, if you raised the VTA, you might need to increase the tracking pressure, and vice versa. Eventually, you will find a balance between the adjustment of the VTA and tracking pressure.
Adjustable Damping (only higher-end models)
Some tonearms have adjustable damping. Adding just a little damping will give you cleaner more open sound. Test as you increase the damping because too much damping will cause you to lose the necessary distinctions between high and low notes.
Your turntable will never spin at a perfectly stable rotation. Electrical motors work off of energy bursts, meaning that there will be times in between the motor’s cycles that your record will spin at a slightly different speed. Chances are, you won’t notice it.
If your turntable is spinning so erratically that it is changing the tone and sound of the music, it might be time to clean and lubricate the platter. If the motor is old and noisy, you can spray a little penetrating oil onto the motor. Shying away from WD-40 which will most likely evaporate before your motor really benefits from it, PB Blaster Penetrating Catalyst is a great alternative for this application.
And just for added measure, make sure to take some cleaner to the speed controls.
If the turntable still fails to hold its speed, it might be time to replace the drive belt. Be sure to find the correct replacement for your model, by looking up compatibility in the user manual.
Popular turntables with highly tunable features:
This Fluance model boasts a premium Audio Technica Moving Magnet cartridge, diamond stylus, belt driver, built-in Preamp (which can be bypassed if need be), and Adjustable Counterweight and Anti-Skating. Not to mention all reviews mark it as being a beautiful piece in the modern household.
This is a 2-speed fully manual record player. The manual function allows you to have the most control you can over the tuning of the tonearm, including the tracking pressure, anti-skating pressure, and VTA adjustments. But most importantly, the adjustable counterweight allows this model to give a pristine sound quality.
Most Audio Technica turntables are fully automatic, meaning that your ability to tune and customize the model is limited. This AT-LP120-USB, however, is fully manual, and open to all sorts of tuning measures. Reviews of the model speak to its attractive, modern design, and good sound quality. It rests flatteringly between a beginner’s inexpensive turntable and a much higher price-point category of audiophile’s turntables.
It also has a USB drive, which would allow you to record with high quality to a Mac or Windows computer. While there are many lower-end models boasting USB recording functions, this model will give you the best recording quality, due to its better cartridge and stylus and the fully manual tune-up, which would allow you to optimize its playback and recording sound quality.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct-Drive Professional Turntable has an S-shaped tone arm that is fully adjustable, including a counterweight, height adjustment (VTA), Anti-Skating adjustment, and the necessary Tracking Pressure adjustment.
This TEAC TN-300 model has a built-in Preamp, as do the two above, but this amp has a phono equalizer. While a built-in digital EQ would manipulate the fully analog sound of the record player aesthetic, for the audiophile who wants their record player as tuned up as possible on a budget, this is a steal.
The Equalizer adds another layer of tuning that most turntables don’t even touch, and while professional setups will be attached to an external soundboard and EQ, this is an easy, automatic fix for the home listener. But if you’re not someone totally thrilled by the idea of your analog machine automatically and digitally optimizing your sound, there is an easy-to-locate switch in the back of turntable to turn this function off.
Aside from the Preamp, the TEAC TN-300 is a two-speed record player with all the necessary fixtures for a fully analog tune-up, including Counterweight, Anti-Skating adjustment, VTA adjustment, and Tracking pressure adjustment. On top of that, it has an elegant design that treads the line between modern and vintage, and it’s available in white, black, natural off-white, and two attractive red tones.
When talking about tune-ups for your record player, there a number of measures that you can take to optimize the sound quality. Some of these measures only apply to mid-range and higher-end record players. Don’t worry though, there are plenty of fixes that you can do to give a lower-end record player great sound quality.
Tune-ups that all record players can benefit from:
- An excellent cartridge
Most cartridges come with the stylus recommended for their model, but you don’t need to change the cartridge if all you need is a new stylus. A good cartridge should last you a couple of years, whereas your stylus might need changing at least every year, if not sooner. Check out how to tell if your stylus needs a change here.
- Adjusting Tracking Pressure and Anti-skating balance
- A new drive belt, if yours is worn out
- Lubricating the drive belt motor
Tune-ups for mid-range to higher-end fully manual models:
- Adjusting the Vertical Tracking Arm
- Adjusting the Counterweight
- Adjustable Damping (only higher-end models)
- Built-in Amps and EQ
Combine these measures with good turntable and record cleaning practices, an awareness of how to troubleshoot the placement of your turntable in your home environment, and, of course, a great library of vinyls at your disposal, and you will be well set-up for a full enjoyment of what vinyl has to offer the home listener.
So tell me, are there any other tune-ups you prefer for your home listening? What do you do to get the most out of your vinyl listening experience?