Mike Knapp over at Home Theater Talk just put up an excellent article on getting started with vinyl. He has given us permission to publish the complete article.
How to Get Started in Vinyl by Mike Knapp
A few weeks ago I had a friend over for some music listening. He is a younger fellow, about half my age, but he loves to listen to good music and we enjoy listening together. He brought some material over for me to hear and I played some material for him as well. Then, I decided to play a little bit of vinyl for him. I chose the alternate version of Tin Pan Alley from the special edition of "Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughn. After the song was over, I looked at him only to notice a glazed look in his eyes. I love it when that happens.
It turns out that he felt this was the best thing he had ever heard on my system and was suddenly interested in the turntable. His only exposure to vinyl had been during his childhood and he was astonished that records could sound so good. He suggested that I write up a little article with some basic turntable info so that new audiophiles looking to get their feet wet with vinyl could have a sort of "cheat sheet". It seems as though many people are afraid of records or only remember them sounding bad.
And so, this will be a sort of "turntable 101" lesson covering the very basics of getting into vinyl, why you should consider it and some recommendations on how it can be done on a budget of small proportions. I am not going to get really technical but hopefully provide enough information so that a new vinyl enthusiast can feel a little less intimidated by this segment of audio. It was, for many of us, the primary delivery system for many years and there is some fantastic music on vinyl to be had for pocket change at thrift stores and garage sales.
First let's dissect a turntable into the five most basic parts. There is the plinth (or base), the tone-arm, the cartridge, the motor and the platter. Anyone that has ever seen a turntable should be familiar with these basic elements without much need for explanation. The plinth is the foundation of the turntable. The feet are usually attached to it and the platter and tone-arm sits atop it. The tone-arm is what holds the cartridge and allows the stylus (needle) to ride in the grooves of the record. The platter is the part that spins and the motor is what causes the platter to spin. One look at a turntable and you should recognize these very basic parts.
There are two basic types of turntables. These are belt-driven and direct-drive. On a direct-drive turntable the motor is connected directly to the platter. On a belt-drive turntable, the motor is isolated from the platter via a bearing and a "belt" is used to connect the platter and the motor. Most audiophile turntables are belt-driven. It is felt that isolating the motor, and so the vibrations from the motor, is a good idea and using a belt helps toward that goal. DJ's prefer direct drive tables because of the quick spin-up they offer and using a direct drive mechanism eliminates a belt falling off or wearing out. This is not to say that direct-drive tables cannot deliver extraordinary sound or that a belt-drive table always will.
In fact, my recommendation to someone brand new to all of this and looking to experiment would be to scour thrift stores or pawn shops in search of a Technics SL 1200
direct-drive as their first table (pictured below). These are practically indestructible and when equipped with a nice cartridge can do a respectable job spinning wax. They will have a pitch adjustment with a built in strobe light to ensure proper speed and a no nonsense tone-arm that is a solid performer. A used one should set you back less than 75 bucks. I believe they are still in production and have been for decades. New models are about 500 dollars. When a model has been around that long, it is doing something right. My first "real" turntable was a Technics SL 1200.
The plinth of a turntable is pretty straight forward in function, but varies in design. There are heavy mass designs and some that have barely any weight at all. But they all serve to support the platter and the tone-arm. They also support the motor on a direct-drive table.
The platter can be made of steel, aluminum, glass, acrylic, wood or a multitude of other materials. It is the platter that actually comes in contact with the record. Most platters will have a "mat" on top of them that comes between the record surface and the platter. This mat can be made of many exotic materials. The most common are felt, cork, and rubber. I use no mat on my table. My records come into direct contact with the acrylic platter. The platter spins the record at a particular speed that matches the speed at which the record was "cut". The two most common speeds are 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm. The speed on most turntables is fixed and selectable via a switch on the table or by moving the belt to a different sized pulley on the motor. But many turntables have a "pitch" control. This will vary the speed of the platter by adjusting the voltage sent to the motor. Many hi-fi tables have a separate motor control unit with incredibly exact adjustments to make this process very precise.
A calibration sheet is placed on the table and the pitch is adjusted by using a strobe light. However, many of the calibration discs just need ambient light to work. This process ensures that the platter is spinning at the correct speed. On DJ tables, this function is used to "blend" songs together that may not be exactly the same speed. Listen to a good DJ, the pitch control is their mightiest weapon. The Technics table mentioned above has a built in strobe and calibration patterns etched into the edge of the platter to make pitch adjustments a real breeze.
The tone-arm is a bit of complex machinery and can appear quite delicate. Most will have several features in common. I will address the most basic of tone-arm functions. The cueing device is usually an oil damped mechanism for lifting and lowering the tone-arm. This provides a smooth vertical lift with no lateral movement when removing the cartridge from the record. It is usually a little lever at the outside of the base of the tone-arm, but I have seen them everywhere. There are automatic ones and manual ones. Both perform the same function, lifting the stylus from the record or lowering it to the record without lateral movement.
There is usually a counterweight at the end of the tone-arm. This is used to adjust the tracking force of the cartridge. Phono cartridges require downward force on them to work properly. The amount of downward force varies from cartridge to cartridge and the counterweight is used to adjust this downward force. Gravity applies the force, and the counterweight offsets the gravitational force to achieve the proper balance. Again, this is something that will need to be adjusted and it requires a measuring device of some kind. Most turntables have a built in gauge on the counterweight that will allow you to get the "tracking force" close to where it needs to be so an external measuring device would be optional. Most audiophiles will have a tracking force gauge that has a digital read-out so that their cartridge tracks at its optimal force. But, when just starting out, using the dial on the tone-arm will do nicely.
Most tone-arms will have a "head-shell" in which the phono cartridge will be fastened. On some models, this head-shell can be removed from the tone-arm to perform the cartridge installation, on others the installation must be done with the head-shell in place on the turntable. The removable head-shell is nice, but it adds another connection in the voltage path. Many find this undesirable; others prefer the convenience of a removable head-shell. It is nice not to have to work on the turntable while it is in the rack or on the kitchen table.
The anti-skate control on a tone-arm will vary widely in design, but will likely look like a dial of some kind on an entry level table. This mechanism, no matter how it is designed, is meant to keep the cartridge from "skating" across the record surface and make the stylus ride in the record groove properly. The various designs work differently in a mechanical fashion, but they all have the same intended effect.
The cartridge is where the sound is made. There are generally two types of cartridges. A moving coil (MC), and a moving magnet (MM). Electricity is produced by the cartridge and passed on to your phono pre-amp to be passed on to the amps and finally the speakers. All sound in a hi-fi rig is based on varying voltage. This very small voltage is amplified and then moves the speaker cone in and out accordingly, depending on the voltage level. It works this way with all your audio components, voltage fluctuations are the cause of speaker movement... and sound.
The electricity that comes from the cartridges is created in two different but similar ways. In a MM cartridge, the cartridge has a magnet encased within a coil. When the stylus bounces around in the record grooves the magnet moves around inside the coil and electricity is produced. The MC cartridge works in a similar way except that there is a coil moving inside a magnetic housing. The moving magnet cartridge produces higher levels of electricity and is the more common of the two types. If you want a turntable to plug directly into a stereo receiver you will probably want a MM cartridge. Usually, a MC cartridge will require another gain step (increased amplification) in the path called a "step-up" transformer to bring the voltage level up to the place where the phono pre-amp can properly deal with it.
Many newer receivers or hi end phono pre-amps will have a switch on them to allow for the voltage differences between the two cartridges. You can simply flip a switch to determine which gain to apply to the cartridge. In essence, they have a built in step-up transformer you can engage with the flip of a switch. The MC cartridge (the lower voltage output) is generally considered superior sounding, but I notice little if any difference between them when using good quality cartridges. For those just starting out, a MM cartridge would be the smart choice. They are cheaper and more widely available, with some even being available from Radio Shack.
So now you know the basic parts of the turntable and you are ready to buy one and listen to some tunes from the big black discs. What will you need?
Well, if you bought a used turntable from a thrift store or at a flea market, it is a safe bet you will need to buy a new cartridge. I'd recommend a Grado Black cartridge
for those just starting out. They can be had for about 40 dollars or so from a variety of on-line dealers. Just Google "Grado Black" in quotations and you will find a source. You will need to determine if you need a P-mount type cartridge, or a standard mount. A standard mount will require small bolts to secure it to the head-shell (the cartridge will come with this hardware) and the P-mount just slides into place. You need to know the type before you order the cartridge. If you have a standard mount, be sure to notice the color of the small electrical leads and where they are plugged into the cartridge so you can put them back on the new cart in the same place. Write this down.
You will need a sturdy shelf or top rack space to put the table on. The sturdier the better. Don't go thinking this can be overbuilt. A concrete slab is dandy. Be sure the shelf is not prone to vibrations. The record makes the needle vibrate, making electricity and then sound. Any additional vibration will also be audible. The idea behind a sturdy shelf is to allow only the vibrations from the stylus to make the electricity?not your footfalls.
You may need a dustcover for the table. Many come with one attached, for those that don't you can buy a variety of them on-line.
A safe place to find a used turntable would be a used record store. If you have one of these locally, I would check with them before the pawn shop or the thrift stores. They will likely have better quality tables and may actually check the cartridges out and tune them up before offering them for sale. You may pay a little more than at the flea market, but if you are new to this, it would be a prudent move in my opinion. Try to find one with the manual included, but if that is not possible, look on-line for the manual. It is a nice thing to have. I had a table once that had a very strange anti-skate mechanism, and I would never have figured out how to use it without the manual.
You will need a phono input on your audio equipment, or an outboard phono pre-amp. The outboard pre-amp can cost anywhere from 30 bucks up past 3,000 bucks in a heartbeat. For the beginner, I would recommend using a receiver with a phono input on it. The Outlaw RR 2150
has phono inputs and a MM/MC switch on it. It is a fantastic sounding stereo receiver and will give you many years of pleasure. If you don't want to buy new, just be sure that the receiver has a phono input on it... or plan on adding a phono pre-amp.
One thing we have not spoken of that you may need is called an alignment protractor. This device, which comes in a plethora of forms and prices, will aid you in aligning your cartridge properly in the headshell. I have about three of these devices and they all work about the same. They will have a grid and some dots printed on them. You slip one end of the protractor over the spindle (most protractors will have the hole already in them) and then you adjust the cartridge so that the stylus rests on one of the dots, and aligns properly with the grid to assure it is "squarely" installed on the headshell. The easiest one I have used is called the Geo-Disc from Mobile Fidelity. It is available at ElusiveDisc.com
or a variety of other vendors. The cost is 50 bucks, so for those of you just starting out you may want to download one and print it out for free. Just Google "alignment protractor" to find all the options or go HERE
for the free printable one.
The more carefully you set up the turntable, the better it will sound. Take your time, do it correctly and don't be afraid of it... it is not rocket science.
I buy both new and used vinyl. The Stevie Ray album I mentioned in the opening paragraph was a newly produced record, not a used one. Buying used records requires time and effort, but you can save a boatload of cash doing so. You will need to inspect the record for scratches or surface damage, and if possible have it played for you. Most used record stores will play their vinyl for you and may actually have the records pre-graded according to their condition. Sealed is obviously best, but then?it isn't used now is it? So what you are looking for are records graded "mint" or "glass". These will be tested to have no scratches and usually be in primo condition. Mint- and VG+ are also acceptable conditions. Once you get to VG, it becomes dicey. What may be acceptable surface noise to the guy grading them in the store, may be horribly noisy to you at home.
A really good cleaning will remove much of the surface noise from the record. I use a steamer to deep clean my records, but a good commercial manual type cleaning device can work wonders. Discwasher is a brand that comes to mind. Regardless of what you use, you will need to clean the records before playing them. Look in the How-To area of this website for an article on Vinyl Tweaks for more tips on record care and cleaning.
Now go enjoy some music that is captured in the grooves of the big black discs. Many audiophiles believe this is the only way to enjoy music to the fullest. I don't really agree with that, but it certainly is a very fine way. You will find that over time, the ritual you must go through to play your records becomes a labor of love rather than a task. It does seem to bring you closer to the music than just selecting a song number from the electronic cue. I have had vinyl in my life since I was a kid, and I don't see it going away anytime soon. It is still a viable medium for great music and with the availability of new releases and the often superb pickings of used material; you will have no shortage of things to play on your "new to you" turntable.
* Buy good looking records, and listen to them prior to purchase when possible.
* Always clean the records before playing them.
* Make sure the cartridge is tracking at the proper force.
* Make sure the platter is spinning at the proper (accurate) speed.
* Always use the cueing device.
* Always handle the records on the edge; never place your fingers on the grooves.
* Take care of your records and they will take care of you.
I hope this was helpful, it is longer than I expected, but there is much to tell. Don't be afraid, it was easy enough for your mom and dad to do all those years ago?how tough can it really be?
A huge thanks to Mike Knapp for letting us publish this on Audio Junkies.