Unlike MP3 players or even CD players, vinyl record players require you to work with a lot more machinery and do more manually than other, more modern, music playing systems.
Like a vintage car, when it comes to a turntable you have to be familiar with all the different levers, doodads, and thingies sticking out everywhere. My article on how to operate a turntable properly will get you as far as safely playing your records, but it’s very important that you know what ALL the parts do, how they work, and what they are for. I don’t have a lot of space to relay all that information, but I think we’ll do just fine.
I will discuss each important thing in turn, telling you what it does and how to use it. Not all record players will have all of these parts, but they will have most of them.
Watch Your Tone: The Tone Arm
The tone arm is the long arm that holds the stylus that runs in the record’s groove. At the back of the tonearm there is a counterweight. This weight is calibrated at the factory to let the stylus rest in the groove with only enough force to play the music. If the counterweight is not set correctly the stylus could lay too heavily in the groove, damaging both itself and the record. If you change out the stylus the counterweight may need to be adjusted; the manual should tell you how to do this or if it can be done on your model.
There may be a little circular knob on the tonearm assembly known as a “skate control”; this determines how well-centered the stylus is in the groove. Each side of the groove is one channel of the stereo recording. If the stylus drags too hard on one side or the other you may find that the left or right channel gets damaged.
There may also be a small lever known as a “cue” level. This raises or lowers the tone arm so that you can precisely position it over the spinning record and then safely lower it onto the record’s surface. Not all players have this.
At the end of the tonearm opposite the counterweight, you’ll find the head shell. This holds a device known as the cartridge, which in turn holds the stylus. The cartridge contains the device that converts vibrations from the stylus into electrical signals that can be amplified into audible sound.
There is usually also a little stand with a retention clip known as an “armrest” that stops your tonearm from wandering around when it’s not in use.
Pitch Perfect: The Pitch Controls
On some record players you may see a slider control that’s labeled “pitch control”. This will let you raise or lower the pitch a little bit. This is generally a feature that only DJs care about when mixing two records that they want to beat match. So unless you are aiming at being the next great MC, this won’t really affect your experience.
When it comes to pitch there is, however, something you should understand, and that’s strobe dots.
Some turntables have rows of dots on the edges of the turntable itself. There will be one row for each speed that the turntable supports. There will also be a small strobe light that shines on one part of the platter. If your platter is spinning at the correct speed, then one of the three lines of dots should look like they are standing still. If none of them are standing still, it means the platter is not spinning at the speed it is supposed to. If you haven’t accidentally adjusted the pitch control, then this may be an indication that something is wrong with the motor drive or that somewhere something is interfering with the free rotation of the turntable platter.
Motormouth: Drive Types
The turntable’s platter is rotated by an electric motor. In general the motor will either turn the platter directly or indirectly with a belt. These methods are referred to as belt-drive and direct-drive, respectively.
Each approach has its own advantages. Direct drive turntables have more torque and get the platter up to the right RPM more quickly, but they are more prone to vibrations directly from the motor.
Belt-drive systems take longer to get up to speed, so DJs don’t like them, but they are cheaper and the belt acts as a dampener, so for home listeners they may be better and they certainly are the most popular options. Apart from being slow to hit the right pace, their other main disadvantage is that the belt itself is also prone to wear, adding another point of failure.
The rest of the things you’ll see standing in front of your turntable are basically just buttons that control various things. One obvious one is the power button. This turns the juice on so that everything can work. You may also have a button to start up the motor that turns the record. On some cheaper models the table starts spinning the moment you switch the power on, so beware.
There will also be a speed selector switch, which lets you choose between the different RPM options that particular model supports.
Other bits and bobs that you may find on there include a light known as a “stylus illumination”, which is yet another feature of use mainly to DJs. This light helps them cue a track in low light conditions. Most people won’t care, but at least you know what it is now.
You may also see a little round metal insert stowed in a recess on the deck of the turntable. If it is there you can use it to adapt some seven-inch 45 RPM records that have a spindle hole too big for other record players. You’ll see this from time to time.
The More You Know
That covers just about all the key parts you are likely to find on any turntable. Very fancy models may have digital readout or additional computer controls if they also have the ability to convert vinyl to MP3 format or another similar technology. These vary too much for me to describe them in general terms, so you are better off just checking the manual.
After reading this you are almost a veritable expert in cutting-edge vinyl record player technology. So get out there and impress both ladies and gentlemen with your new lot-times in knowledge. Don’t forget to read this in conjunction with my record player buyer’s guide which will also help you make practical decisions when deciding what to buy.
Vinyl Vintage Audio System Reviews
If you’re completely new to the world of vinyl and vintage audio, I’d recommend to start with the reviews on Turntables, Phone Preamps, Record Cleaners and Speakers. Once you’ve got this covered, make sure to check the menu for more of my reviews.