After many years when only the hard-core vinyl enthusiasts were showing much interest, playing records and using turntables has suddenly become hot again. But this renewed interest brings with it a sticky problem. Thirty years ago, records were the music source of choice, and every audio retailer had an analogue setup guy, someone who could get your new rig tweaked and ready to go. Today most of those turntable gurus have moved on (or, sadly, passed on), and many new turntables are now sold through online outlets, leaving the end user to fend for him or herself.
The good news is that several turntable manufacturers have recognized this knowledge gap, so they ship lower cost models complete with a pre-installed cartridge and simple enough instructions to get the rest of the job done. But, if you have any plans to step up above the entry level, you may find that you’ll need to screw some of the bits together yourself.
Get yourself situated
Setting up a turntable requires a good amount of attention and focus, so pick a comfortable and well-lit spot to do the work. Some exotic turntables can only be assembled in their final location, but whenever it’s possible, I like to work at a large sturdy surface such as a kitchen table. Just be sure to pick a time when the kids aren’t going to be running around creating havoc.
Most of what we call turntable setup, is really centred around installing and adjusting the cartridge in the tonearm. Sorting out the rest of the turntable is typically quite straightforward. Just follow the instructions for your particular model showing how to attach the belt, install the platter and mat, and loosen any transit screws. With some designs you’ll need to add oil to the main platter bearing, while with others you may have to insert the tonearm into its mounting collar. If you’re resurrecting an old forgotten record player from the attic, check to see if you can find a scan of the original manual at Vinyl Engine, a great information resource for all things turntable related.
The one key tweak that applies to almost every turntable, is the importance of getting everything level. Put your spirit level directly on the platter, and adjust the feet or underlying shelf so that it reads perfectly true in every direction. An out of level turntable platter will create added friction and noise which will mask low level detail, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to dig from those grooves.
Once the basics are done, you can get down to the challenging, er, fun part, which involves installing and adjusting the phono cartridge. Nothing will spoil your new vinyl experience more quickly than trashing a brand new cartridge that you scrimped and saved for several weeks to afford, so give yourself plenty of time to proceed deliberately and carefully.
To help allay that fear, most new cartridges come with some kind of protective cover for the stylus assembly, and it makes sense to use this whenever possible during the setup. There will be a few points in the process where you’ll need to have the stylus naked and exposed, but at other times it’s a good idea to keep it covered up.
Making the connection
I always find that it’s easier to make the electrical connections first before physically mounting the cartridge on the tonearm, but others insist that you should do it the other way around. You can make your own call.
At the back of the cartridge you’ll find four pins where you need to attach the four colour-coded wires that exit from the business end of the tonearm. Normally the cartridge pins have some kind of colour coding that corresponds to the wire colours, although some manufacturers like to make it a bit more cryptic by marking the pins with R+, R-, L+, and L-. Basically, the standard colours for the left channel are white for the positive connection, and blue for the negative, while the right channel uses red for the positive and green for the negative. Some arm manufacturers like to complicate things by throwing a black or yellow wire into the mix, so check the manual if there’s any doubt.
Personally, I prefer to attach the wires without using any tools, by grasping the end of the wire between my bare fingers and pushing it directly onto the pin. I find that I can get a better feel for what’s happening, and when I try using needle nose pliers or tweezers there’s always a greater danger of bending the clip over. The pins themselves are supposed to be a standard diameter, but it seems that some cartridge manufacturers missed the pin size memo, so you may need to carefully adjust the tightness of the clip to get an good firm connection. If it’s too loose, try using needle nose pliers to very gently squeeze the clip together. Opening up an overly tight clip is a bit trickier, but pushing a toothpick into the clip – or opening it with a jeweller’s screwdriver – can help.
Mounting it up
Once your wires are snugly attached, you need to physically mount the cartridge on the arm. Almost every cartridge manufacturer now uses M2.5 metric thread mounting screws, and most manufacturers supply suitable screws with the cartridge. Many cartridges have blind threaded screw holes, making it a doddle to run the screws down from the top through the headshell and into the top of the cartridge. If you’re not so lucky and need to use separate nuts, it’s often simpler to run the screws up from underneath the cartridge, with the nuts positioned on the top of the headshell. Once you’ve figured out the best way, position the cartridge so it’s near the mid point of the slots in the headshell, then tighten up the screws until they are just barely starting to get snug.
Now you’re ready to fine-tune the alignment. But before you whip out your alignment protractor, you need to get the tracking force roughed in.