Vinyl record player setup for beginners

This guide will help you set up your vinyl record player or turntable for the first time

Photo by Juliane Mergener on Unsplash

Before you play any of those new, sealed vinyl records with your record player, use this simple guide to setting up your turntable.

I’m assuming that you have a working turntable, and that your amplifier either has a dedicated phono channel, or you’re using a standalone phono preamp into your amp’s auxiliary channel.

There are three main things you need to do to set up your record player:

  • position and level your record player
  • set the stylus pressure
  • align the cartridge.

Some terminology

First, some definitions so we’re all on the same page.

  • I use the words turntable and record player interchangeably.
  • The stylus or needle is the tiny, delicate point that sits on the surface of the record as it spins. It picks up vibrations from the groove and transmits them into the cartridge
  • The cartridge is where mechanical energy from the stylus gets transformed into electricity. The vibrations from the surface of the record are passed into a coil, which moves through a magnetic field, creating an electrical signal.
  • The cartridge attaches to the headshell, which connects to the tone arm, and usually provides a means of aligning the cartridge correctly to the record.
  • The tone arm is on a pivot that allows the stylus to track the groove in the record as it spirals towards the middle. It also carries the electrical signal from the cartridge along four internal wires (positive and negative for each side of the stereo pair).
  • If your turntable has an anti-skate control, it will usually be in the form of a dial at the base of the tone arm. Anti-skate provides a counter force to stop the tone arm’s natural tendency to skate inwards towards the centre of the record. It helps to keep the stylus evenly positioned within the groove, so you hear the correct balance of left and right signals from you speakers.
  • The platter is the surface where you play your record. It’s usually covered with a rubber mat to grip the record.
  • The spindle is the pin in the middle of the platter that goes through the hole in your record.

Positioning the turntable

Where you physically place your record player in the room will have a big impact on its performance. You also need to ensure the platter is completely level.

Minimize vibrations

You need to be careful your turntable is not affected by vibrations. Even the sound vibrations in the air that are coming from the music you’re playing on the turntable itself can affect it.

It’s best to place it on a solid surface behind your speakers, or off to one side in the room away from the direct path of sound from the speakers. If you’ve got the option, using a room with a concrete floor is better than one with floorboards.

If you’re going to get really serious, you’ll want to try to decouple the turntable completely from any vibrations in your listening room by putting it on a special platform.

Level your turntable

The next step is to make sure it’s completely level.

Use a spirit level on the platter. Test it front to back, and side to side. Then check that it’s level from the spindle to the point where the stylus meets the record.

Not perfect, but close enough for jazz

Set the stylus pressure

For your stylus to pick up vibrations correctly from the groove of the record, it needs to have the right pressure applied to it from the counter-weight on the tone arm.

If there’s too much weight on the stylus, this will cause distortion and excessive wear on your records. If there’s not enough weight on it, the stylus can jump, and scratch your record.

When you’re performing the next steps, make sure your turntable is unplugged and your stylus is protected with a cover, so you don’t damage it while you’re adjusting the tone arm.

Before you start, set the anti-skate control to zero, and make sure the cue lever is down to give the tone arm full range of up and down motion.

Find the neutral balance point on your tone arm

Wind the counter-weight on your tone arm backwards or forwards until the tone arm is perfectly balanced. There will most likely be a calibrated dial at the front of the weight — you can ignore this for now. We’ll use it in the next step.

With your tone arm balanced, it will float beautifully in space, tilting neither upwards nor downwards. When you tap it gently, it will oscillate up and down and return to the neutral balance position.

Here’s what tone arm looks like in the neutral position

Set the correct pressure for your stylus

Now you’re going to use that calibrated dial together with the counterweight. The markings represent the pressure on the stylus in grams.

With the tone arm still in neutral balance, wind the calibration dial around to zero.

Then screw the counterweight inwards together with the calibration dial until the calibration reaches the desired stylus pressure.

Your stylus will come with specifications that include a range of pressure. Mine is 1.8–2.2 grams. You want to aim for the middle of that range, so I’m going for 2 grams.

Your calibration dial won’t be 100 per cent accurate, but it will give you a good idea. If you want to get fancy, you can buy a stylus force gauge (affiliate link). If your tone arm doesn’t have a calibration dial, using one of these stylus force gauges is better than guessing.

Set the anti-skating

Now that you’ve got the right stylus force dialled in, set the anti-skate to the same number as the stylus force.

Stylus force and anti-skate set to 2 grams

Align the cartridge

The final step in setting up your turntable is to make sure the cartridge is correctly aligned with the surface of the record.

Because of the geometry of the tone arm, the stylus inscribes an arc as it tracks towards the middle of the record. This means the stylus is only going to be sitting perfectly in the groove at two points in the arc, called null points.

Turntable designers have minimised the effects of this to the best extent possible, but cartridge alignment is about trade-offs to produce the most even sound across the record.

To align your cartridge, you need to use a protractor. There are different ones out there for different setups, and if you’ve bought a high-end turntable it probably came with its own protractor.

However, if you’re a beginner like me, the free protractors at Vinyl Engine will suit your purposes (note: you have to sign up for a free account before you can download the PDF).

You put one end of the protractor on the spindle in the middle of the platter.

The two grids on the protractor represent the two null points. Loosen the screws that attach the cartridge to the headshell, and then start with the outside null point.

Make sure the stylus is sitting in the middle of the cross for the null point, and that each side of the cartridge is aligned with the lines of the grid.

Then do the inner null point, and come back to the first.

It’s worth taking some time to get this right. Once you’ve done it, you won’t need to set it again unless you take the cartridge out.

Again, not perfect, but I’m happy with this

Resources

My guide is nothing new — there are a ton of resources out there. I was just setting up my own turntable, so I thought I’d put all my research down in one place for beginners to use.

These are the sources I used to write this guide:

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