Playing your favorite record on a new turntable is one of the best feelings in the world. There’s something so personal and satisfying about watching the tonearm drop into place before the sounds of your favorite artists fill the room. In a world full of ad pop-ups and endless streaming options, sitting in the warmth and fullness of analog sound can feel refreshingly simple, especially when the tracking force is calibrated perfectly.
However, as any audiophile knows, the process of setting up and maintaining your record player is often complex.
Whether you’re brand new in the phono world, or you’re a seasoned sound vet looking to brush up your knowledge, it’s always smart to go over all the settings on your turntable and know parts of a turntable intimately.
One of the first settings one must familiarize themself with is the speed of playback. Not all vinyl records can be played at the same speeds, and not all turntables can play at the same speeds, so ensuring your vinyl matches with your record player is essential.
But another less talked about piece is tracking force, the likes of which affect the health of your records, your cartridge, and your overall listening experience.
It’s likely, if you’re reading this, that you’ve at least heard the term tracking force before. Maybe you’ve even noticed there’s a weight or force setting on your turntable. But you may still be wondering what precisely tracking force is, why it matters, and how you can check if it’s correct. So without further adieu, let’s dig into the grooves of all the FAQs about tracking force.
What is Tracking Force?
The first and most pressing question at hand is: what exactly is tracking force? Simply put, tracking force is the amount of weight your turntable’s cartridge places on the record.
To play music smoothly, the tip of the stylus needs to follow the impressions that are engraved on the walls of the record groove. The stylus tracking force will help the needle consistently trace the impressions amidst temperature and pressure shifts.
Since complex grooves force turntable styli to vibrate as fast as 10,000 times per second, keeping your force on point is essential.
The amount of weight pushing down on the stylus (and thus on the records) will affect both the sound quality and the amount of record wear you see from the stylus tip. Your tracking force will need to be different depending on the type of cartridge and record player you have, so it’s important to pay attention to it to avoid unnecessary damage, or compromised sound quality.
The Pro-ject USA High-Precision Cartridge Alignment Protractor will help you align and adjust your cartridge and tonearm, which alongside great tracking force makes for smooth playing.
Why Does Tracking Matter?
The stylus needs to make contact with the record at the ideal weight to create beautiful playback and prevent unnecessary damage. If your tracking force isn’t set correctly, your cartridge could easily be sitting too heavily or too lightly on the grooves.
A tracking weight that is too heavy will push on the record too much. This can cause distortion, a reduction in detail, and overpowering bass. The excessive drag can also cause damage to the vinyl, particularly when you’re using an older stylus. The extra weight can create a stilted stylus tip edge which then scuffs the surface of the grooves. and the excess drag can even cause serious damage to the vinyl.
Conversely, if the tracking force is too light, the force from the grooves can potentially throw the cartridge up, causing the needle to skim or “skate” across the vinyl record.
The needle will then land on a random place in the groove, and cause both skipping and potentially damage the record. If the tracking weight is light for too long, and you experience this kind of mistracking often, the rate of damage increases.
Neither of these outcomes is good for the health of your needle or your records. So for this reason, paying attention to tracking force really does matter. However, if you’re going to wager which is worse for your needle, it’s a lighter force, since that most often causes consistent skipping, skating, and mistracking.
How Do You Measure Tracking Force?
Take comfort in knowing that you don’t need the eyes of an eagle, or the ear of an orchestra conductor to check if your tracking force is at the right level.
While regular mistracking might be easy to spot with your eyeballs or eardrums, it’s also possible to have less than ideal force without noticing overt signs. The easiest way to measure and check if your tracking weight is on point, is to check the counterweight.
The counterweight is the round numbered dial on the end of this Pro-ject USA 12-cc Evolution Audiophile Carbon Fiber Tonearm.
The counterweight is the main component on the tonearm that lets you shift the tracking force. In most cases, the counterweight can be found on the rear end of the tonearm (furthest end from the needle), and it will have numbers on it. The numbers indicate the grams of weight placed on your cartridge, AKA the tracking weight. This means if the counterweight is set at 2, your tracking force is 2 grams (and so forth).
However, if the process of manually measuring your tracking force makes you nervous, or you simply don’t trust the counterweight reading on your older turntable, there are other options.
You can purchase a digital tracking force gauge that you attach to the turntable for measurement purposes. The Pro-ject USA Measure it S2 is an electronic balance that can measure up to 5 grams of tracking force, and measures in precise 0.001 gram increments.
With a solid aluminum housing and 4-digit LCD backlit display, the Measure It massively simplifies the process of measuring your force and gives you weight down to the fraction of a gram. In order to use the electronic balance, you’ll set it on the turntable (not on top of a record, though). First, you’ll power up the digital scale and make sure it’s calibrated.
The Measure It (and other similar components) come with a calibration weight you can use to test the scale. If the calibration weight is 5 grams, then you’ll obviously want to make sure the number on the scale matches up. Once you’ve confirmed the scale is measuring correctly, you’ll set your anti-skate to 0, and gently lower your tonearm onto the scale to get a reading.
How Do You Adjust the Tracking Force?
Now that you’ve found your counterweight, you may be wondering how to set the tracking force, or more specifically, how you decipher which number is best.
First, you’ll want to reset the tonearm so it can hang like a seesaw in mid-air. If your turntable has an anti-skate feature (meant to keep the needle from “skating” towards the center of the vinyl), you’ll change the anti-skate setting to 0.
Next, you’ll adjust the counterweight (again) so that the tonearm hangs once more like a seesaw, not swinging upwards, but steady in mid-air. This leveling means your counterweight is at 0.
In order to move forward, you’ll want to check the recommended tracking force for your specific cartridge. Each cartridge manufacturer should include the ideal tracking force range in the manual, but if you don’t have the manual, you can also look it up online based on the model.
Most recommended ranges fall in between 1 and 3 grams, but you’ll want to check to verify precisely what your machine needs.
Once you’ve found the ideal tracking force for your model, you’ll simply set the counterweight to the suggested number. If there’s a range of 1 gram (from 2-3 for example), you’ll want to set your counterweight evenly in the middle of the range (2.5 in this case). If your turntable has an anti-skate setting, you’ll make it match the counterweight (so if it’s a tracking force of 2 grams, set your anti-skate to 2 as well). Now you should be good to go.
How Often Should I Check Tracking Force?
Once you have your tracking force set, it’s recommended that you check up on it annually. However, if you accidentally knock your tonearm out of place, or move your record player to a different location (even a new surface in the same room), it’s suggested that you reset it. As you likely guessed, you’ll use the same process detailed above.
If your tracking force is optimized but things sound off, make sure you’ve set your alignment with a turntable protractor.
A Common Misconception About Tracking
Now that we’ve covered the basic low-down on what tracking force does, why it matters, and how to adjust it, it’s important to address an old trick that affects force that is resourceful, but ultimately misguided.
Even if you’ve never done it yourself, it’s likely you’ve heard or witnessed people place a penny on their record player during playback.
This practice originated from the belief that pennies can act as anchors helping ground the needle, and preventing it from skipping or jumping out of the grooves. In a sense, the penny on the record player trick has been used as a DIY anti-skate setting.
However, this practice places a lot of stress on the needle and can make the tracking force too heavy and cause stress on both the stylus and the record grooves.
The concept of a penny on the stylus is smart in theory since it’s essentially giving attention to the tracking force and trying to prevent skating. But the counterweight is equipped to actually measure tracking force and will give you the ability to adjust precisely and protect your gear.
Luckily for all of us, we don’t need pennies to do the heavy lifting of tracking force, since our turntables are designed with all the gorgeous components we need.
If you neeed to get more out of your stylus, check out our guide to choosing the perfect turntable stylus.