Vinyl FAQ 09: What is tracking force?

By in Features, Turntables & Tech





Everything you always wanted to know about vinyl but were too afraid to ask.

Whether you’re a seasoned audiophile or a new recruit, our FAQ series aims to tackle questions big and small about records, turntables and everything in between.

From quizzical musings like “What does dust actually do to my records?” to the more fiddly “How do I change the cartridge?” or just handy information like “What’s the difference between a belt and direct drive deck?”, this series will have you covered.

Tracking force relates to the tip of your stylus. To work properly, the stylus tip has to follow the impressions engraved upon the walls of the record groove while under tremendous temperatures and pressures, in relative terms. The complex groove forces the stylus tip to vibrate from side to side as fast as 10,000 times per second.

To keep the stylus in the optimal position to grab as much of this sonic information as possible is a task helped by a tracking force that is applied to the cartridge – and thus the stylus. This pressure pushes the stylus downwards, maintaining the optimal sonic retrieval position. Correct tracking forces vary wildly depending on the cartridge type/design so please refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to find the correct figure for your cartridge.

Too little tracking force and the external forces applied to the stylus in the groove will overcome the stylus, kicking the stylus out of the groove. The stylus will then return back at a random place in the groove and possibly cause damage through an uncontrolled impact. The chances of damage occurring will increase if this severe ‘mis-tracking’ occurs often and repeatedly.

You can actually hear minor mis-tracking. Hence, even if the stylus is not actually leaving the groove, minor mis-tracking will cause the music to sound bright or will cause sibilance.

If you apply too much tracking force you will hear distortion, a reduction in detail and booming bass. Physical vinyl ‘ploughing’ damage is a risk from excessive tracking forces. Too much tracking force is especially risky while using a worn stylus, which can create unnatural stylus tip edges and scour the surface of the groove.