Getting the best sound out of a vinyl record doesn’t necessarily require spending a lot on a cartridge. Achieving the highest fidelity from your gear begins with precisely setting key turntable components namely the tonearm counterweight and anti-skating. Proper calibration has many benefits: obtaining a good balanced sound across all the frequency range, an accurate groove tracking, minimal vinyl and stylus wear. The following guide will show you how to calibrate these parts. Plan yourself time as it involves a minimum of understanding, patience and dexterity. Watch or read until you feel comfortable, it’s a skill every vinyl lover should master.
New to vinyl? Check out our Beginner’s guide to turntables and vinyl.
Understand Your Turntable
Stand in front of the turntable and focus on the tonearm area; the long “s” shaped or straight shaped arm holds the headshell with the cartridge stylus at one end and the counterweight at the other. Looking closely at the tonearm assembly and its surroundings, notice an anti-skating dial. These are user adjustable parts and are essential to calibrate the turntable for optimal vinyl playback.
The tonearm counterweight applies force (pressure) to stylus located at the other extremity. Calibrating the stylus force is the general term when referring to this setting. Also called vertical tracking force, it’s simply the weight, in grams, applied by the stylus to the vinyl groove. The ideal weight setting will depend on the cartridge stylus used. Applying too much tracking force will wear out the vinyl record faster as the stylus will “dig” more heavily in the groove. On the other hand, insufficient weight causes the vinyl to sound thin as the stylus doesn’t have enough tracking force to correctly read the groove. The tonearm could also skip resulting in irreversible damage to the vinyl record and stylus.
Next to the tonearm assembly is the anti-skating dial which basically applies a slight frictional force to the tonearm and keeps the stylus aligned to the groove. The anti-skating setting will essentially have to match the stylus tracking force used, unless you are a disc jockey.
Before calibrating your turntable, make sure it’s perfectly leveled horizontally. Some turntables have feet/legs also called insulators used to adjust the height. Placing a level meter on the platter will reveal any tilt; don’t forget that the turntable has four sides, make sure to place the level from side to side and front to back.
How to Balance The Tonearm
In order to set the stylus tracking force correctly, the tonearm has to be balanced first. The balance point indicates that the tonearm applies zero grams of tracking force to the stylus. To achieve balance, the weight must be equally distributed at both ends of the tonearm. Rotating the counterweight adds or subtracts weight. The balance is obtained when the tonearm floats perfectly horizontal without user intervention.
1) Stand in front of the turntable, remove the dust cover and focus on the tonearm assembly area.
2) Locate the anti-skating and set it to “0”. It will ensure that the tonearm won’t move outward while you find the balance point.
3) Remove the stylus cover if present and take extra precautions not to damage the stylus during the process either by touching it with your fingers or dropping the tonearm on the platter. Don’t leave the stylus cover on, the extra weight on the cartridge will result in an inaccurate tonearm balance.
4) Hold the headshell by the finger-lift, using the right hand’s index finger on the bottom and the thumb on top. Unclip the tonearm from the armrest with the left hand. The cue lever should stay lowered.
5) Lift the headshell and move the tonearm as if you were to play a record from the beginning. Keep holding the headshell by the finger-lift using the right hand index finger on the bottom and thumb on top. Do not let the stylus touch the platter or any surface.
6) While holding the headshell, use your left hand to rotate the back of the tonearm counterweight using this logic:
Finding the balance point requires the user to let the headshell barely enough room (1/4 inch/6.3 mm) between your fingers to see if the tonearm tilts towards the counterweight (back) or the headshell (front) at a given weight.
A clockwise turn decreases tracking force.
A counterclockwise turn increases tracking force.
An unbalanced tonearm tilting towards the headshell is a sign that there is too much weight being applied. Slightly rotate the counterweight clockwise to decrease tracking force.
An unbalanced tonearm tilting towards the counterweight is a sign that not enough weight is being applied. Slightly rotate the counterweight counterclockwise to increase tracking force.
Balancing the tonearm can be frustrating, proceed with patience; always turn the counterweight very slightly in the desired direction. Don’t forget that the stylus, the tonearm and its assembly are fragile. At all times be in control of the tonearm’s motion when increasing or decreasing the tracking force. The tonearm is extremely sensitive, any sudden movement from the user part can make the tonearm tilt and cause damage.
If your turntable was set with some tracking force, chances are the tonearm will tilt towards the headshell if you leave the headshell barely enough room to tilt. It indicaties you to slightly rotate the counterweight clockwise to decrease tracking force. The idea here is to apply a perfect weight distribution along the tonearm resulting in a balanced, perfectly horizontal tonearm floating without the user holding the headshell.
Near the balance point, releasing the headshell results in the tonearm floating by itself. The balance is achieved when the tonearm floats horizontally without the user holding the headshell.
Once the tonearm seems balanced, inspect it from the turntable perspective. Stand on the right side of the turntable and have the eye levelled to the tonearm. You may need to make very small adjustments before finding the perfect balance point. Remember, the tonearm is extremely sensitive.
8) Return the tonearm to its rest and clip it. If the value on the outer ring of the tonearm counterweight doesn’t align with “0” it’s normal, don’t panic.
Stylus Tracking Force Calibration
Next we will set the stylus tracking force applied to the vinyl during playback. Before going further, refer to your specific cartridge stylus’ instructions for the recommended weight and as you will need the value to accurately set the stylus tracking pressure. Every cartridge stylus model is different, hence the weight needed will be different. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the accurate weight range suitable for your cartridge stylus.
1) Focus on the tonearm counterweight. Notice the values on the stylus tracking force control and the marker line on the tonearm next to it. Make sure the tonearm is clipped to its rest.
2) Use the left hand to hold the back of the counterweight steady. For this step the counterweight should not move from its balanced position.
Keeping the back of the counterweight steady is important to maintain the tonearm balanced.
3) While holding the back of the counterweight steady with the left hand, rotate the front ring and set the stylus tracking force control to “0” with the right hand. Remember, only the front part of the counterweight should rotate. Now the tonearm is balanced and shows a “zero” tracking force.
By rotating the front ring only, we are keeping the tonearm balance and are simply adjusting the setting of the stylus tracking force control to zero. No weight is added, neither subtracted in this step.
4) To apply tracking force, hold the counterweight from the back and turn it counterclockwise to the desired value. The stylus tracking force control will indicate the weight applied to the vinyl groove.
Remember, setting the tracking force too high will wear out your vinyl faster. If the cartridge stylus manufacturer recommends a tracking force range from 2 grams to 5 grams, try setting it around 2.5 or 3 grams and do a listening test. Ideally use a record you know very well.
A thinner overall sound may indicate there is not enough weight, increasing the stylus tracking force will improve the sound.
Louder lower frequencies and distorted sound may indicate there is too much weight, decreasing the stylus tracking force will improve the sound.
5) The tonearm is now perfectly balanced and the stylus tracking force has been correctly set.
How to Set Anti-skating
When playing vinyl, the tonearm moves from the outside of the disc to the inside. Due to the laws of physics, the rotation of a vinyl record and friction with the stylus’ tip draws it slightly towards the inside of the groove. To counter this offset, anti-skating applies a small frictional force to the tonearm and keeps the stylus aligned to the center of groove.
A general rule of thumb is to adjust the anti-skating to the same value as the stylus tracking force for regular vinyl playback.
Disc jockeys that spin and scratch vinyl might want to alter their anti-skating settings because the stylus might skip during cueing and scratching.
Potential issues…and how to fix them!
If the tonearm does not seem to properly balance, the main issue encountered is often related to the weight distribution: the tonearm counterweight is pushed to its limits either too far back or too close to the tonearm assembly. The culprit is the cartridge stylus’ weight… it’s too light. To make things clear, we are not talking about the stylus tracking force weight, we are talking about the weight of the cartridge stylus itself. To correct this issue, headshell manufacturers include a shell weight; a small piece of metal that either sits between the headshell and the cartridge or is attachable on top of the headshell.
If the issue persists, the last option is to attach an auxiliary weight to the rear of the headshell: a small cylindrical shaped metal piece.
If you bought your turntable brand new and a headshell with a cartridge stylus is supplied with the product, then you shouldn’t have any issues as all the necessary parts come packed in the box. However if you purchased a used turntable or are planning to do so, make sure you have all the pieces, or be prepared to hunt them down!
Experiment a little and final thoughts
Now that your tonearm is perfectly balanced, the stylus tracking force and anti-skating are accurately set you can enjoy an optimal and balanced vinyl playback. Remember if you purchase a new headshell, a new cartridge or both you will need to readjust everything.
I strongly suggest trying the guide at least two or three times to be perfectly comfortable with the process and potentially teach others how to properly balance the tonearm, set the stylus tracking force and the anti-skating.
Pushing the experience further, you could do the steps in reverse.
1) Hold the tonearm counterweight from the back and turn it clockwise back to “0”.
2) Set the anti-skating to “0”, hold the headshell and unclip the tonearm.
3) Move the tonearm is if you were to play a record from the beginning.
4) The tonearm should be back to its balance point, floating horizontally.
4) Clip the tonearm back to its rest.
5) Turn the tonearm counterweight counterclockwise to the desired value and match the anti-skating accordingly.
Although not a mandatory tool, a stylus tracking force scale can be used to verify if the stylus tracking pressure has been accurately set. Inexpensive ones can be purchased for about 15$, they do a good job revealing any imperfection.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and now can brag about being able to balance your tonearm, set the stylus tracking force and anti-skating.
If you have any questions or would like to add something, please use the comment box below.