Record Player Set-Up Pt2

Record Player Set-Up  Part 2

Setting the Tonearm and Cartridge continued

Warning: Be aware that the cartidge stylus assembly is EXTREMELY FRAGILE when being handled and that tonearms are precision engineered. If you are not absolutely confident about handling small, easily damaged (and possibly very expensive) equipment, it is recommended to give the job of setting up your tonearm and cartridge to someone with suitable experience. If you are absolutely confident or just interested in how to do it, then read on.

Primary Settings

First check your turntable is level with a bubble gauge or spirit level. If the turntable has a sprung base then a bubble gauge is preferable, unless the the spirit level is a very lightweight design, so that there is a minimal influence on the balance of the springs. Next set the arm bias to zero.

Now with the cartridge fitted into the headshell, the tracking force needs setting to the manufacturer's recommended settingIdeally use a tracking force gauge to set the weight. Alternatively it may be possible to set the force (weight) using markings provided on the arm but these markings will often be less accurate than a gauge. To use the arm markings, first set the arm to be at zero balance AT THE HEIGHT OF THE RECORD on the turntable platter. Next set the cartridge manufacturer's specified weight using the markings. If your arm doesn't have any markings then it will be necessary to use a gauge.

Next the overhang needs to be checked. Place a turntable protractor onto the turntable. Make sure the bias is still at zero and set the tracking force to a low level so that the cartridge only just comes down onto the protractor surface - this is to help protect the stylus if the arm is accidentally knocked. The alignment can now be checked using the instructions and markings on the protractor.

All arms are different, so if adjustment is needed it may be necessary to follow the specifications and instructions supplied by the arm manufacturer. Ensure the cartridge screws are just loose enough to be able to manoeuvre the cartridge in the headshell without it actually flopping about. Try to be as accurate as possible and TAKE GREAT CARE during adjustment as the stylus is very easily damaged. Do not over tighten the cartridge screws once adjustment is complete. Some arms, like the SME variants, have the cartridge screws tightened first and the overhang is adjusted from a mounting plate at the rear. Once alignment is complete reset the tracking force and bias to the cartridge manufacturer's specification.

Secondary Settings

With the turntable properly levelled and the protractor alignments set, the Vertical Tracking Angle can be checked. Make sure the bias adjuster is set to zero. Next place a small lightweight bubble spirit level on top of a flat part of the headshell. Now reset the tracking force to the cartridge makers specification with the spirit level still on the headshell. Next lower the arm onto the alignment protractor (or any flat record can be used for this check) so that it is at normal playing height.

If the VTA is correct the bubble will be exactly in the centre of the spirit level fore to aft, that is in a line drawn from the front of the headshell to the arm pivot. If it is not central fore to aft, the VTA will need to be adjusted according to the arm manufacturer's instructions and the procedure repeated. Quite often it is a simple matter of slackening a screw, making the adjustment and re-tighting the screw but each arm is different and considerable care is needed.

At the same time it is also possible to check the cartridge azimuth which is the angle relative to vertical of the cartridge viewed from the front. Most tonearms have the azimuth fixed but it can be adjusted on some arms. If there is no provision for adjustment then it will be necessary to make up suitable shims or change the head shell  (where there is provision to do so) for one that will allow azimuth adjustment. When making shims it is important that the cartridge should make maximum contact with the head shell across it's whole width so that the arm can properly dissipate the energy from the cartridge body.

With the tonearm still lowered, if the bubble is exactly central from left to right of the headshell then the azimuth is correct. If it isn't central then the azimuth needs adjusting according to the arm manufacturer's instruction and the procedure repeated. 

If the bubble is central in all planes then the azimuth and VTA are correct. 

Now remove the bubble level from the headshell and reset the tracking force and bias to the cartridge manufacturer's specification.


Your arm is now set up but it is worth noting that once the above settings have been carried out, any alterations to the tracking weight will also marginally affect the VTA. This correlation between tracking force and VTA allows some fine tuning of the tracking to take place. If you want to carry out fine tuning always stay within the manufacturer's specifications to minimise wear on the stylus and record. A test record will assist with these final  settings and checks. Listening over an extended period of time will also help with any micro adjustments aimed at achieving the best possible sound.


All the equipment needed to carry out the above settings is available from this website.

Remember to get a copy of the arm and cartridge manufacturers specifications before starting any of the more involved adjustments.

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