Tracking force is a pretty simple concept but can be daunting for newbies or the first purchase of a deck with a tracking force option. This article aims to give you an overall idea of what tracking force is, how it can affect the sound of the record and also guide you through the set up on your own record player.
What Is Tracking Force?
Tracking Force is the weight at which your record player’s stylus (needle) sits on the record. The stylus needs to make contact with the record at the correct weight to create the best sound and prevent damage to the record.
You should be able to adjust tracking force on most entry-level audiophile turntables and upwards, such as Rega’s, Audio Technica’s and Pro-Jects. For cheaper turntables like Crosley’s or sub $100 brands, it is unlikely you will be able to adjust for tracking force.
If you’re tracking force is too heavy this means the stylus is pushing down too hard on the record. You’re likely to hear more distortion and, in some cases, it can damage the record. If the weight of the stylus on the record is too light, you have a chance that the force from the grooves will throw the cartridge up and the needle will ‘skate’ across the record. This will lead to the music skipping and potentially scratching the vinyl. This is why we need to optimise the force for the best sound quality and to protect your vinyl.
How to Adjust Tracking Force
The main component on the tonearm that allows you to adjust the tracking force is the counterweight. This is usually at the rear end of the tonearm, and likely to have numbers detailed along it. You can adjust the weight of the tonearm by turning the counterweight to a specific number. The numbers are represented in grams, so if the counterweight is set at 2, the weight of the stylus on the record would be 2 grams.
First, we need to reset the tonearm so it can balance in ‘midair’ on its own, much like a seesaw. If you have an anti-skate setting on your turntable, set this to ‘0’. Now, adjust the counterweight so the tonearm balances in mid-air. By this, I mean so that the cartridge and stylus are floating without touching the platter/record but also not falling upwards. Your counterweight is now set to zero.
Now we need to find the correct tracking force. Each cartridge will have a recommended tracking force weight, and to find this, check the manual for your cartridge which will tell you. If you don’t have the manual, check the appropriate weight online by searching for your cartridge and the specific weight needed. For example, if you are using the Ortofon 2m Red cartridge, then the force needed for this is about 1.8g.
Next, we need to set the counterweight to the correct tracking force to be used on your records. To adjust this, all you have to do is turn or adjust your counterweight to the appropriate setting for your cartridge. Set the numbered dial on your counterweight to the required weight for your specific cartridge that you have already looked up. This should then make the cartridge move downwards towards the turntable platter or record, and sit at the correct weight when you play music.
If you’re tonearm also features an anti-skate control, adjust this to match the counterweight setting. So, if it is set at 2g, also set the anti-skate to 2g. The anti-skate function helps counteract the tendency of the tonearm to move inwards as the stylus gets closer to the centre of the record, thus keeping the music sounding the best it can.
This step is by no means necessary, but if you want to further check that the weight of your tracking force is correct, you can buy a digital gram scale. With one of these you can just lower the stylus onto its platform and a digital readout will tell you exactly how much force is being applied. You can then check this against the dial on your counterweight and adjust accordingly.
How Often Should I Test The Tracking Force?
Once it’s set, you shouldn’t need to check it for up to a year. That’s unless you move your record player or knock the tonearm in any way. In either of those circumstances, just set the counterweight to zero again and use the above steps to set it back to the right tracking force.
You’re Done! Your record player is now set up with the correct tracking force. The only thing left to do is stick on your favourite record and enjoy!