Vinyl enthusiasts know that achieving the perfect sound from their turntable requires attention to detail and a deep understanding of the mechanics at play.
One crucial element of turntable setup is anti-skate, which counteracts the force pulling the stylus towards the record spindle. But could this adjustment actually be causing distortion in the inner grooves of your records?
In this article, we’ll explore the relationship between anti-skate and inner groove distortion, and provide tips for achieving optimal sound quality from your vinyl collection.
So sit back, grab your favorite record, and let’s dive in!
Can Anti-Skate Cause Inner Groove Distortion
The short answer is yes, anti-skate can cause inner groove distortion. As the turntable spins, the cartridge stylus may experience uneven pressures on the groove walls, causing it to lean harder against one side of the groove than the other. This side-thrust is normally compensated by an anti-skate adjustment, which restores equal downforce to both sides of the groove.
However, if there is too little or too much anti-skate force applied, it can cause distortion in the inner grooves of your records. Too little anti-skate force will cause the stylus to apply more pressure to the left or inner groove walls, resulting in higher levels of distortion on the right channel. Conversely, too much anti-skate force will cause too much pressure to be applied to the right or outer groove walls, leading to higher levels of distortion on the left channel.
It’s important to note that this distortion will only be present in the inner grooves of your records, as this is where the stylus is most affected by anti-skate force. If you’re experiencing distortion throughout your entire record, it’s likely caused by another issue with your turntable setup.
Understanding Anti-Skate And Its Purpose
Anti-skate is a feature found on most turntables that applies a small outward force to the tonearm, counteracting the tendency of the arm to move inward (skate) toward the center of the record as it approaches the end of the record. This feature is essential for maintaining good channel balance, minimizing distortion, and minimizing stylus and record wear.
The anti-skate control is usually located at the foot of the tonearm in the form of a small counter-weight and adjustable knob. Some turntables may not have this manual adjustment, but it may be handled internally and preset at a fixed value by the turntable’s manufacturer. This is particularly common on turntables that utilize an integrated cartridge.
To set the anti-skate on a turntable with a user-adjustable control, begin by adjusting it to the same value as the vertical tracking force (VTF) used. This will get you in the ballpark. Listen carefully to the last few minutes of a record to determine if more or less anti-skate is needed. Listen for distortion, particularly in the form of sibilance, and determine if it appears to be louder on one channel than the other. Adjust the anti-skate value until the distortion is minimized.
It’s important to note that if you apply just enough force to stop actual skating, you may still experience balance problems that could cause issues in terms of stereo channel separation and distortion. Therefore, it’s best to set the anti-skate according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
The Inner Groove Distortion Issue
Inner groove distortion is a common problem that occurs when playing tracks close to the end of each side of a vinyl record. It is an audible deterioration in sound quality that is caused by the progressive reduction of linear resolution as a record progresses. This means that there is more vinyl per second available at the large-diameter beginning of the record than exists at the smaller-diameter toward the end of each side, causing the wavelengths to become gradually shorter and more compressed as you get closer to the record’s center.
The more condensed grooves are much harder for the stylus to track accurately, and this problem is most noticeable at higher recorded volumes. Mastering engineers try to mitigate end-of-side distortion by pressing quieter songs with moderate bass and lower HF energy towards the center of each side. Alternatively, they will restrict the playing time or spread an album over two discs to avoid inner grooves.
Even when taking linear resolution into account, there is still the issue of cartridge and stylus alignment. Turntables use a pivoting tonearm, which can only line up correctly at two points across the record surface. A properly configured, high-quality turntable with a minimum 10-inch tonearm can reduce tracking errors significantly, but tracking errors will always be most noticeable at the inner grooves.
Various attempts have been made to mitigate end-of-side distortion, such as purposefully misaligning the cartridge to improve inner-groove tracking at the expense of outer grooves. However, it will always be a compromise. With all of this in mind, it would be easy to dismiss vinyl as a flawed medium, which of course it is. But that doesn’t make vinyl any less relevant – far from it. In many cases, inherent distortion in the vinyl format is what draws people in; often referred to as “analog warmth,” what we’re actually experiencing is the analog medium imparting sonically pleasing distortion.
The best course of action is to invest in a good turntable and ensure you configure it precisely. After all, if you play records on a poorly set-up deck, the inner grooves will suffer the greatest damage.
How Anti-Skate Can Contribute To Inner Groove Distortion
Anti-skate force is a necessary adjustment in turntable setup to ensure that the stylus stays in contact with the groove walls. However, if this force is not properly balanced, it can contribute to inner groove distortion. This is because the groove walls are at a 45-degree angle, meaning that any change in sideways force will also affect the downforce that keeps the stylus in contact with the groove wall.
If there is too little anti-skate force, the stylus will apply more pressure to the left or inner groove walls, leading to higher levels of distortion on the right channel. On the other hand, too much anti-skate force will cause too much pressure to be applied to the right or outer groove walls, leading to higher levels of distortion on the left channel.
The key to optimizing anti-skate force is to equalize the level of distortions between the right and left channels. This can only be measured while the stylus is sitting in the grooves with the record playing. It’s important to note that bizarre methods of measuring anti-skate force, such as using a blank record groove or a mirror cut into the shape of an LP, can lead to inaccurate results and arbitrary anti-skating force that may not correlate with what you’re actually trying to compensate for.
Tips For Achieving Optimal Sound Quality With Anti-Skate Adjustment
Now that we understand the importance of anti-skate adjustment, let’s dive into some tips for achieving optimal sound quality.
First, it’s important to note that you should NOT have the anti-skate on or connected while making alignment adjustments. This should be the last step in your setup process.
When adjusting your anti-skate, start by finding a record with lots of dead wax near the label. Place the stylus in the dead wax and watch how quickly or slowly it moves toward the label/spindle. The stylus should move gracefully, not too quickly and not too slowly.
Usually, the recommended position on the rod will coincide with your cartridge tracking force. The very outer rung is the most anti-skating, while the rung nearest to the pivot is the least. So, you only have three options as there are only three rungs to hang the fishing line from.
Listen for distortion in both the right and left speakers. If you’re hearing distortion in the right channel, you have too much anti-skating force applied. If you’re hearing distortion in the left channel, you have too little anti-skating force applied.
It’s important to find the perfect balance between too little and too much anti-skate force. This will ensure that your stylus applies equal pressure to both sides of the groove walls, resulting in optimal sound quality.
Conclusion: Finding The Right Balance For Your Turntable Setup
To avoid inner groove distortion caused by anti-skate force, it’s important to find the right balance for your turntable setup. This involves properly aligning your cartridge and tonearm, ensuring that your anti-skate is set correctly, and checking for any issues with azimuth.
Alignment is crucial to ensuring that the stylus tracks properly and doesn’t cause inner groove distortion. Using an overhang gauge can help ensure that you’re starting off in the right area before using protractors to align your cartridge.
Anti-skate force should be set at the right amount, which is usually the same as the tracking force of your cartridge. However, it’s important to note that anti-skate force can vary depending on the music being played, so it’s important to test and adjust accordingly.
Azimuth is another factor that can cause inner groove distortion if not set correctly. While it may not be an issue with stock setups, it’s important to check for any issues with suspended decks or custom arm-boards.
Overall, finding the right balance for your turntable setup involves careful attention to detail and testing to ensure that there is no inner groove distortion caused by anti-skate force. By properly aligning your cartridge and tonearm, setting anti-skate force correctly, and checking for any issues with azimuth, you can ensure that your turntable setup is optimized for optimal sound quality.