After trying out last month's headshell setup suggestions, you should have your headshell dialed in to suit your specific needs and style. To further your quest for a skip-free setup, resume the tweakfest — this time by taking a look at tonearm adjustments.
Before I get into the specifics of tonearm tweaking, you should be aware that worn-out needles are one of the biggest and most often overlooked causes of skipping. One of the best improvements you can make to your setup is to install a new set of needles, particularly if you have been using the same needles for months or have dropped and abused them. You don't need to replace the cartridges (unless they are damaged), just the needles, which are usually available at one-third to half the cost of a cartridge — or less. A new needle might be just what the scratch doctor ordered.
The tonearm is probably the turntable's most finely engineered feature. Sure, the platter has to spin at a constant speed and the pitch fader's performance should be precise, but you can usually get by if those features aren't exactly up to snuff. However, if your tonearm is unstable or poorly designed, you are going to have a difficult time performing even the most basic scratch technique.
First, give your tonearm a quick once-over, making sure that it has no loose screws and that its hinged and rotating parts move freely without a rough, gritty feel. If your tonearm fails any of those rudimentary tests, you should have it serviced by a professional. It may be tempting to try to fix the tonearm yourself, but you could damage the tonearm even more and be forced to replace it, which is an expensive proposition. If you're not sure what you're doing, take your turntable to a pro. Once you're sure that your tonearm is in normal operating condition, you can begin to tweak the user-adjustable settings for maximum skip-free performance.
Most tonearms feature at least two adjustable settings, such as a tracking-weight adjustment, which is typically located at the tonearm's back end. In addition, many feature a height-adjustment setting that lets you change the height of the tonearm's pivot point (see Fig. 1). Most turntables with S-shaped tonearms also feature an antiskate setting that allows you to control the force with which the needle pulls toward the center spindle (see Fig. 2). You will probably need to adjust all settings if you want to obtain optimal scratch performance.
Tracking weight is the downward force the cartridge applies to the needle and, consequently, the force the needle applies to the record. Your tracking-weight setting is one of the most important adjustments you can make, because it greatly determines your needle's tendency to skip — or not to skip. Generally, you adjust the tracking weight by turning a cylindrical weight at the tonearm's back end, moving the weight closer to or farther from the tonearm's pivot point.
The rule is to track with as little weight as possible while still minimizing skipping. Although other factors are involved in selecting your optimum tracking weight (such as needle design, personal style, and the scratch type you are performing), the bottom line is that decreasing the tracking weight will increase the likelihood of skipping. However, the less weight you track with, the longer your records will last, as heavier settings tend to increase the rapidity of record burn (the crackling noise heard on frequently scratched sections of vinyl). The key is to strike a balance between reducing record burn and increasing skip resistance.
The first considerations in determining the prime tracking weight are needle design and performance. Selecting the right needle is essential to extending the life of your records and to reducing skips while scratching. The Stanton 500AL, an old-school favorite, allows tracking weight settings of a maximum 5.0 grams. As a scratch needle, it performs best at the 4.5- to 5.0-gram setting. Contrast that with the current turntablist fave, the Shure M44-7, which tracks between 1.5 and 3.0 grams. In my experience, the Shure outperforms the 500AL and causes less record burn. That's mainly because its ideal tracking setting in the range of 2.5 to 3.0 grams is almost half the weight of the 500AL's. If you have been using the same cartridge and needle combo for years, take a look at the new models — you'll probably find something you like a lot better.
Obviously, cartridge and needle selection are important to any discussion of tracking weight. However, if your goal is to track with as little weight as possible, it is equally important to improve your technique so that you can minimize skipping.
One big factor is the fluidity of your movements. Scratching with a lighter hand will let you track at a lighter weight. Watch a turntablist perform, and you may get the impression that he or she is beating on the records and throwing the needle around. Although many scratch techniques appear aggressive, the best DJs actually have a light but precise hand. The turntablist's skill combines speed and precision with fluidity and gentleness, allowing for the creation of amazing scratch sound bites without needle skips.
REVERSING THE WEIGHT
Turntablists often reverse the tonearm weight because doing so allows them to track at a heavier weight. On the Technics SL-1200MK2 (the most imitated turntable design), the weight forms a bullet shape that, when mounted properly, has more weight at the back than at the front. When mounted in reverse, the weight's heaviest end is closest to the pivot, which reduces the weight at the back of the tonearm and therefore increases the tracking weight.
That technique is popular, but I have found that it isn't necessary; I prefer scratching with the weight mounted properly. However, if you have maxed out the weight available on your turntable and are still skipping, that trick can increase your turntable's tracking-weight range.
Next month, I will focus on height adjustment and antiskate issues. Until then, why not treat your cartridges to a new set of needles (or treat yourself to a new set of cartridges — try the Shure M44-7 if you are looking for a change) and test some of the adjustments. Remember, no one can tell you what the “correct” setting for your equipment is. Only through experimentation and practice can you find the setting that is best for you.
Robin Smith is a former radio and club DJ. Lurking as a bedroom mixer and geek, he is creator of the Online 1200, a Web version of the Technics SL-1200MK2 operating instructions (www.turntablism.com/online1200). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.