How to balance your tonearm: A step-by-step guide

How to balance your tonearm: A step-by-step guide

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Often overlooked, setting the tracking your cartridge weight and balancing your tonearm may sound dry, but it’s about the single most important adjustment you can make to the way your turntable sounds and will save both your needle and your records in the process. We take you through the deceptively simple process, step-by-step.


Words: Paul Rigby


This feature will guide you through the process of setting the tracking force of a cartridge on a turntable.

Before I begin I want to recommend two very important things. Firstly: be patient. Do not rush this process. In fact, force yourself to slow down and concentrate to prevent accidents. Secondly, if you read the following instructions and your turntable manufacturer recommends a method that contradicts my own then follow the manufacturer’s instructions instead. There may be a very good design reason why we differ.

Some turntables require that you install the tonearm onto the turntable itself, others demand that you attach the cartridge to the arm. This is a beginner’s guide so I’m going to assume that both of these tasks have been done for you, as is frequently common nowadays, by the manufacturer. The likes of Pro-Ject, Rega and others like to promote a ‘plug and play’ (well, almost) philosophy to make turntable set-up as easy and as painless as possible, so they will have completed both tasks for you.

Why do we set a tracking weight at all? To allow the stylus to faithfully track the grooves in the intended manner. The tracking weight varies because arm and cartridge weights vary. If the tracking weight on your stylus is too low, it will cause the stylus to jump and damage your record (which is why too low a weight is more harmful that too high a weight). If you set the tracking weight too high, the stylus will not track the grooves correctly, losing information while aural distortion will often be evident too and, again, there’s a possibility of record damage, over an extended period.

If you read standard tracking weight instructions, you will find a recommend range of tracking weight figures from the manufacturer. If you stick with somewhere in-between then you won’t go far wrong (i.e. for a recommended range of 1.6g-2.g, go for 1.8g).

Get started below. If you get stuck, you can check the interactive image above for reference. NB: We’ve roughly based our example on a Technics SL-1200, but most turntables will have a similar or equivalent set-up.


step1

1: NO SKATING ALLOWED
Look for the anti-skate control. This can either be a rotating wheel featuring a numbered display or a piece of fishing-type wire with a weight hanging off the end that sits on a bar or some-such on or around the arm (your turntable’s instructions will guide you to what position corresponds to what setting). Set anti-skating to zero.


step 2

2: IT’S NO YOKE
Your arm may be secured to a supporting yoke, midway along its length, via a plastic hook or latch or similar. This is the arm rest that you normally use as a sort of home base in between vinyl plays. Unhook this yoke, lift it off the rest, support the arm to prevent the stylus crashing into the platter for now and lower any supplied arm lift.


step3

3: EVEN STEVEN
Move the rear-mounted counterweight backwards and forwards along the length of the arm until the arm lifts off the arm rest and freely (without any support from yourself) hangs in a level position. Your arm now has an effective tracking weight of 0g. Tighten the locking nut to stop the counter-weight sliding but not enough that you can’t move it with light pressure for fine adjustments.


step 4

4: DIAL ZERO
Because the tracking weight, in this finely balanced position, is effectively 0g, you can now locate the arm tracking weight dial which normally sits at the rear of the arm, possibly on the moveable counter-weight itself. Move the dial to zero. Not every arm will arrive with a convenient dial. If there is no dial, don’t worry. Buy yourself a tracking weight gauge to provide confirmation of the desired weight.


step5

5: SPEAK YOUR WEIGHT
If the counterweight is on a screw thread, rotate it (which also moves the dial) to the desired tracking weight. If your arm has no counter-weight dial or screw thread, rest the tracking weight gauge on the platter and the stylus on the gauge. Edge the counterweight backwards and forwards to the suitable tracking weight. The gauge’s read-out will tell you when you have found the correct weight.


step6

6: SKATING ALLOWED
Once done, put the arm back on the arm rest and secure it. Now reach for the anti-skating device and set it for the same figure as your arm’s tracking weight. This little device prevents your arm from, literally, skating over the top of the vinyl surface towards the end of the record. It puts the breaks on, so to speak. That’s it! You’re done.


Further reading: Check out our full interactive and annotated guide to all the bits on your turntable here.

Illustrations by Abigail Carlin

  • Jason Lucas

    So informative… and beautiful illustrations as ever

  • Good stuff, though on the anti-skate, in an ideal world that would be right to set it at the same value as the tracking weight, the force of the anti-skate normally varies from arm to arm.

    Use the blank side of a single sided 12″ and adjust the anti-skate till the arm travels about 1/3 of the way across the record when you place it at the outside edge. I then place it into the runout grooves of a 12 and see how it reacts there. If it pull back towards the outside edge, then reduce the anti-skate slightly until is runs into the centre gently.

    Before starting all this the most important thing is to ensure that the turntable is level!

    Good luck, a well set up turntable is a big upgrade! :o)

  • PatSPLIT

    The desired tracking weight depends upon your playing style of course too.

    Hip-Hop scratchers will turn the weight as far forward as possible to prevent the needle jumping during a scratch routine. (They also flip the balance weight around backward to move its center of mass further forward. I’ve also taped quarters to the top of the headshell just as extra precaution. Vinyl and needles be damned).

    Of course you’re reading this blog post to get it just right so you are not prematurely wearing out the grooves of your records. Therefore, as Paul has suggested, check on the box/website of the cartridge manufacturers. They have recommended tracking weights for their products to give you a good starting point for the tracking weight application. A heavier headshell/cartridge combo (e.g., OEM Technic headshell and Shure M-44-7 cartridge) will not need as much tracking weight as the lightweight, all-in-one cartridge (e.g., Ortofon DJ-S Concorde).

    Thanks for educating the vinyl newcomers, Paul! Great article.

  • Jen Hemmings

    I love turntables. I’m into more retro types, but have used and loved the T/1200 at a local radio station. Any info as to where I can get instructions on a Sharp RP-10 TT would be highly valued.

  • Eclectiktronik Live

    “This little device prevents your arm from, literally, skating over the
    top of the vinyl surface towards the end of the record. It puts the
    breaks on, so to speak.”
    No it doesn’t. What utter rubbish. Antiskate
    counteracts the centripetal tendency caused by the effect of tracking
    the groove. That’s also why a blank disc won’t work for its
    calibration. And finally, ‘brakes’ and ‘breaks’ are not the same
    thing!

    • Chris Mills

      hey hey, you need to put the brakes on and give the poor guy a break. We are all here to learn how to balance a tone arm and every comment has been as informative as the article itself. Even yours. Utter rubbish is the only comment that ruined it. Here’s some more detailed explanations I found via your explanation for anyone else interested to know more about it http://audiokarma.org/forums/index.php?threads/what-is-the-anti-skate-mechanism.234962/

      • Eclectiktronik Live

        Chris, The internet is full of self-appointed experts dishing out ‘how-to’ articles and videos without the proper knowledge. Whilst some of my response may seem rude to you, we need to stop being so tolerant of people posting misinformation.There’s enough out there already. If they don’t understand the concepts themselves, they shouldn’t write articles instructing others – that is irresponsible IMO.

      • marcusowens

        There is no reason to “balance” a tonearm. The only thing you should be doing is setting tracking force accurately using a cheap and easy-to-acquire tracking force gauge.

        With the wide range of tables out there, the wide range of age of tables etc, this “how-to” (destroy your stylus and records) article is going to do more harm than good.

        I’ll say this — the above technique is certainly “better than nothing,” but not by much. Also, I see that they did bury a recommendation to buy a gauge down in the middle of the article.

  • marcusowens

    Spend 15 bucks and buy a tracking force gauge, and set your tracking force by the power of math and science, not the power of hope.

    Also, I see that they did bury a recommendation to buy a gauge down in the middle of the article.Not a total loss.

  • DeserT BoB

    Some misinformation about anti-skating, which is common in these days of Millennials thinking they’re found the aural Holy Grail…(they haven’t.) Anti-skating is a “correction” of horizontal applied force toward the outside of the disk (at the stylus) because of the offset of the tracking angle of the stylus (usually around 22° for a 9″ or so inch arm, and this varies) which causes the tangential line of travel of the stylus to be different by that much from a straight line from stylus to the arm’s horizontal pivot. When friction is applied to the stylus, its horizontal reference is thus skewed, and the arm will try to gouge or “skate” against the inner (L+R) groove wall, which causes a few problems, one being that the inner wall will experience far more effective HTF (horizontal tracking force) than the outer (L-R). This is also, in 45/45 stereo, a big problem in that is also exerting unequal lateral pressure on the cantilever’s suspension, thus moving the magnet (or coils, or electrets) off their design center. “Anti-skating” horizontal force varies from arm to arm, and actually is different from stylus type to stylus type….elliptical styli require MORE anti-skating (around 5%) than do sphericals (which yield lower sound quality) owing to their higher contact area in the vertical axis along each groove wall,..the more total friction, the most corrective horizontal force required. The PROPER way to set up anti-skate on any arm/cartridge/stylus combo is to use a test record (such as the Shure TTR-100) at the desired VTF, which is far beyond the average user’s abilities to do right. Thus, most arm/table manufacturers get “close enough” with calibrated markings either on a spring-loaded device or a side weight, such as found on SMEs and a few others. A good “rule of thumb” that I used to use when I didn’t have a lot of time? Some test pressings were single sided and thus had an uncut “B” side. I you lower the stylus onto the record at the desired VTF (my max was 3g, depending on cartridge)), the arm SHOULD move slightly to the outside. Thus, when in a groove, there should be no bias either inward or outward on the stylus, and thus, its cantilever. This will give maximum stereo separation and voltage output toward the pre-amp under most all conditions. Now I know this is WAYYYY too esoteric for what passes for DJs these days (especially the hip-hoppers, who’d probably be better off tracking anything with a wooden stick and a nail), but that’s how it works. Other items on this blurb are equally important, the most overlooked being Vertical Tracking Angle and headshell perpendicularity. Takes some time to do this right, but the increase in reproduction quality is quite noticeable to the cultured ear. My credentials? I started DJing in 1975 in the LA area, had my first Thorens TD-124 table with an ESL arm when I was 11 and built my own amplifiers and speaker systems. I was pretty much out of the DJ/disco scene by 1980, quitting altogether in 1983.afte the big labels started pulling their promo support and pools evaporated. Back then, it was about MUSIC, not thrashing noise, so quality mattered a lot. I still did gigs up into the mid 2000s, but rarely. My tables? Three Technics SL-1100As (the original servo designs, not that quartz bullshit) each with SME 3009 Series II arms and currently equipped with the Grado DJ200 ellipticals, a pretty good cartridge for DJ use. WORST DJ cartridge ever? Stanton 500A…YUCK…fine for AM radio, that was about it. Worst idea to come on the market lately? The Stanton 9″ straight arms. The tracking errors caused by trying to use that short a straight arm cause a ton of phase distortion of the top end and a ton of stereo imaging problems…although they’re liked by the hip-hoppers, whose main raison d’etre isn’t playing back music, anyway…they just make noise.

  • DeserT BoB

    Oh…forgot…you completely blew off headshell perpendicularity, just about as important as Vertical Tracking Angle, but oh well.

  • Linus Martin

    Someone please help me
    My turntable has a Darling M-22 cartridge and I don’t know how to balance the tonearm correctly because I don’t know the ideal weight for this cartridge. I have tried googling it and have gotten nowhere. Does anyone know the weight or is there a way I can find out myself?