So, the box containing your shiny new deck has been safely delivered and you're pretty anxious to enter the gates of audio Heaven. It's quite understandable, you're simply dying to hear your treasured Half Man Half Biscuit album like never before since the Hit Parade was a must listen. But as another combo of the period advised....Relax, don't do it, (although somehow I don't think they were referring to over-eager turntable set-up).
Before the box had even arrived, preparing the deck location is as important as anything else in the initial set-up. There really is a very material beneficial effect to the sound quality if the turntable is correctly located. Undoubtedly, the best results are obtained when the deck is sited on a purpose made stand, or a rigid wall shelf which is perfectly level.
There are two main types of equipment support stand available, but with seemingly two diametrically opposite approaches. However, both types have the same aim – to dissipate unwanted energy and vibration from the deck itself, and to prevent external vibrations from reaching it, typically floor movement from speakers and people.
The most common of stand type is of the solid high mass type, often constructed of wood with a rigid shelving structure. The shelves should all be level and non-resonant. Rap the shelf of a quality stand with your knuckle. It should sound “dead” and muted. The sheer mass of a stand made of suitable materials should absorb most any vibration. It's worth noting that glass is less effective than dense wood and surprisingly, granite is not particularly good. Although aesthetically quite pleasing, both those materials transmit vibrations quite well rather than absorb it.
The stand will probably have spikes to the ground for added rigidity, coupled with height adjustment for perfect levelling. Jumping ahead a bit, after the equipment is in place on the stand, don't forget to check that the structure is still level, and then again after a few days.
As an alternative, a quality, thick, wooden wall-shelf are very good too, and are particularly useful if you're on a tight budget. It should, of course, to be screwed to a rigid stone or brick wall rather than a plasterboard partition.
The other type of stand is actually wobbly! These employ a sprung suspension architecture for the whole thing or for each individual shelf. The thinking here is that vibration from the the deck or other equipment is absorbed by the springs, rather like a car shock absorber cushions bumps in the road. Any vibrations from the floor below, typically from speakers or happy feet, are prevented from reaching the equipment by the suspension. This method works very well, however unlikely it would seem at first glance. The most notable manufacturer of these stand are Townshend Audio. This company have perfected this approach and I personally use their "seismic" stands myself. Again, the stand should be made perfectly level and re-checked once the equipment is placed on the shelves.
So now you know. We're seeking a strong, non-resonant surface for our turntable, perfectly level and perfectly isolated form the floor!
When the assembly of the deck begins, do follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully on how to put the base, platter and arm-board together. When handling the belt, make sure your hands are free of grease and never apply excessive force to the turntable bearing when fitting the platter. Be careful not to let the platter drop onto the bearing. If you are mounting a tone-arm, make sure you have the correct arm-board for your model. There is no standard cut-out for tone-arm bases, although SME arms use the same one. The tone-arm manufacturer will supply a template with the arm to help mount the arm in the correct position. Dress the main audio leads from the arm carefully to ensure the deck suspension isn't compromised. Likewise with the power cable.
If your deck comes with a fitted cartridge skip ahead, otherwise please read on!
Fitting the cartridge in a head-shell can be a bit fiddly, but once it's done, it won't need re-positioning any time soon. Thankfully, cartridge fixings are standard, with a 3/8 inch distance between the centre of each of the two cartridge support holes to attach to the head-shell. It may be easier to first connect the four fine wires to the cartridge before onlyscrewing it in place in the head-shell fairly loosely. The colour coding is standard:
White ... left +, Red ....right +, Blue ... left -, and Green right -.
Once the wires have been attached to the pins on the cartridge, lightly attach the cartridge in the head-shell with the screws provided. I say lightly because the “overhang” will need to be tweaked by sliding the cartridge in the head-shell slots, if there any. If your are using an SME arm, the overhang adjustment is achieved by the whole arm sliding back and forth, so the cartridge can be fixed properly in the head-shell straight away. There is absolutely no need to over tighten the fixing screws, ESPECIALLY if they are self-tapping into the cartridge. Sometimes, with Hi-Fi setting-up in general, there is obsessiveness that everything should be incredibly tight as opposed to just firm. In the case of a cartridge, it's just not necessary, and may even end in tears when cartridge tapping holes are damaged or cross-threaded.
Vertical Tracking Force.
The next task is to set the vertical tracking force (VTF) recommended by the manufacturer. We have to set the tracking pressure at this stage to avoid damage to the cantilever in the line -up procedure to follow (the cantilever is the little arm the stylus is attached to). Recommended tracking weights are typically between 1.25 grams and 2.5 grams and are adjusted on the arm itself. A cartridge manufacturer may give a range of recommended weights, say between 1.5-1.8 grams. Set the weight according to the tone-arm manufacturers instructions. You may think, what's the difference …..it's only a tiny amount between 1gram and 3 grams. But bear in mind that, because the weight is concentrated on a tiny stylus tip, the actual pressure applied to the record groove is typically in excess of 20 tons, so it's not a good idea to double this by lazy line-up.
Vertical Height Adjustment - VTA
Once the weight is set, the next job is to level up the arm tube so that it is parallel to the record when the stylus is lowered onto the record surface. This is known as the VTA or Vertical Tracking Angle. For this you will need an cartridge alignment protractor which has parallel lines drawn on it's surface for this purpose. Find a record of “average” thickness that is of no intrinsic value (any “One Direction” LP is ideal), and with the turntable stationary, drop the stylus near the centre of the stationary disc. Hold the alignment protractor on its side over the spindle if it has a cut-out for this, or near the spindle area if not, and check to see if the arm tube is perfectly parallel. Use the height adjustment provision on the arm to achieve this, lifting the stylus off the record each time you make an alteration.
At a later date, you may try re-positioning the height of the arm from the perfectly parallel position. Cartridges sometimes perform better when the arm is raised to be very fractionally higher at the pivoted end. This will mean the arm is pointing very slightly downwards from parallel, but more on this later. Arms rarely need to be lower at the pivot end, but it's not unheard of.
Horizontal Tracking Angle -HTA
This is the adjustment to optimally position the stylus point to minimize tracking distortion. Sometimes this is also known as the "overhang" or "offset" adjustment. As mentioned in our previous article on turntable factoids, the arm has an offset angle somewhere along its length. As record masters are cut with a cutter traversing the disc in a straight line from the outside edge to the centre, our replay arm, in an ideal world, should follow the same path. This is a physical impossibility because it is pivoted at one end, but the offset-angle built into the arm improves the trace to nearer follow that of a straight line. There is leeway built into the tone-arm or head-shell for this adjustment whereby either the whole arm slides back and forth, or there are small slots in the head-shell which allows the cartridge body to slide. Again, using the alignment protractor, after discarding the “One Direction” record, place the protractor over the spindle through the hole on its surface, to rest flat on the turntable mat. On the protractor, you will see a set of parallel lines and a small cross onto which the stylus point should be lowered. The object of the exercise is to adjust the position of the cartridge until the the head-shell (if it has straight sides), are exactly parallel to the nearest lines on the protractor. If the head-hell doesn't have straight sides, the cartridge itself may have or as a last resort, try and see if the cantilever can be lined up appropriately. Slide the cartridge in the head-shell (or adjust the position of the arm if it slides on it's base), until the cartridge is correctly positioned. Once the adjustment is done, the cartridge support screws are then tightened, not over-tightened, to hold the cartridge in place.
It's just worth mentioning how the marked cross on the alignment protractor or the "null" point is chosen. This point signifies the inner most area on the recorded part of the record surface that the stylus is likely to track. At this point, the grooves are passing across the stylus tip at their slowest speed, so it's that much more difficult for the tip to stay in contact with the groove walls. Why? Imagine a highish frequency recorded by the grooves, say at 8 Khz. The stylus is thrown about in the groove at eight thousand times a second, swinging about side to side like a demented inebriated thing, desperatelytrying to follow the groove. It's much easier for the stylus to do this over a longer length, but at the "null" point the groove is at its shortest for a given frequency. In other words, by setting the stylus at a point when at least the tracking angle is perfect - as it would be if the arm were straight, the null point gives "a helping hand" to the stylus when it needs it most. The audible distortion caused near the centre of the record when the arm is most likely to mistrack is known as "inner groove" or "end-of-side" distortion. Unfortunately, it is one of weak points of vinyl reproduction, but can be mitigated with careful setting up.
Anti-skate control (Bias Setting).
“Anti-Skate” is a bit of a misnomer. It's unlikely the arm would literally skate across a rotating real record if there was no adjustment, but it is an important feature which all tone-arms of any reasonable quality will have.
If you were to lower a tone-arm on a rotating blank record with no grooves, it would have a tendency to move toward the centre of the record and crash into the spindle. This is by virtue of the tone arm being pivoted at one end and having an offset-angle. The consequence of this tendency to skate inwards is for the stylus to be pushed against the left hand groove wall of the record (as viewed from the front) and away from the right hand side. This would cause needless wear to the left wall of the groove and mistracking, with noticeable audible distortion on the right hand channel, where the stylus wasn't in full contact with the groove.
The anti-skate, or bias control as it's better known, applies right hand pressure to the tone-arm to counteract the natural force for it to move to the left when playing a record. The higher the tracking pressure, the more bias force needs to be applied. This is usually done with a dial on the base of the arm which is set to correspond with the applied tracking weight. Sometimes there's a little weight dangling near the rear of the arm which pulls the it outwards. Whatever the method, follow the arm manufacturers instructions as it is an important adjustment.
Just to complicate matters, occasionally a cartridge may require more or less bias than that recommended. How will you know? Well, if there is consistently more distortion on the right hand speaker when playing your Monteverdi's “Vespers for the Virgin Mary 1610” album or some such, the bias is set too low. If the soaring vocals distort on the left, the bias is too high. Vocal sibilance is a good test too. If the cartridge is distorting playing Shirley Bassey's “Lost and Lonely” (I know how she feels...), the distortion should be on both channels, although preferably on neither of course!
So that's almost it folks. But just a word about over-tinkering. A brand new turntable straight out of the box needs to “bed in”, so don't go mad with arm re-adjustment until you've given it a chance. Even more importantly, a cartridge may take in excess of 100 hours use to “sound sweet”, and may initially be very disappointing. Persevere and with each day it should begin to sound sweeter and smoother. Ironically, it seems the more exotic the cartridge, the more likely it is to sound hard even brittle at first, until audio Nirvana sets in and you become a Happy Bunny. If after a reasonable time, the results are still a bit disappointing, try altering the vertical tracking angle very slightly away from the parallel norm or maybe increasing the tracking pressure a tad. Small alterations may have a marked effect, so avoid drastic re-adjustments each time.