parts of a record player debut carbon evo

Vinyl 101: Parts of a Record Player

In the beginning, there was the phonograph, then came the turntable, today there is the record player. The main difference among these terms is who happens to be uttering the words. ‘Phonograph’ is the oldest term for this analog instrument, dating back to the mid-1800s when the concept of a stylus responsive to vibration was first being explored. Back then, the parts of a record player were different.

On a victrola, a horn was fixed near a vibrating stylus that amplified the noise with simple acoustics - like a horn to your ear as a hearing aid. Remember that even today, putting your ear near a record while a stylus is tracking reveals that it’s transcribing what’s in the record groove acoustically (in addition to electrically).

‘Phonograph’ remained the mainstay until ‘turntable’ entered the picture. This was somewhere near the time when folks started building component systems as the industry learned that there was much more to explore in the way of sound quality. The nature of the audio system changed when the principle of amplification moved from acoustic to electrical.

Enter audio receivers (amplifiers & preamplifiers with tuners & built-in phono preamps), loudspeakers, audio signal-carrying RCA cables & speaker wire as well as a slew of options among phono cartridges and styli. Here we also entered the era of the vinyl ‘Microgroove’ record as the audio community had begun to move away from shellac-coated 78rpm discs – the beginning of the audiophile era as we know it. As it remains today, ‘turntable’ was a way to describe the record-playing portion of a Hi-Fi component system.

The latest and current generation of vinyl record enthusiasts understands the term ‘record player.’ Acknowledging that this dates yours truly, more than once I’ve been met with a blank stare in response to using the word ‘turntable,’ followed by the quiet inquiry, “…you mean record player?”  To this day, ‘phonograph,’ ‘turntable,’ and ‘record player’ are all active terms and we’re all speaking the same language (at least generally). No one’s right and no one’s wrong here. I say ‘turntable’ because that is the generation from whence I came.

I digress… we are, after all, here to discuss the basics of the modern turntable. I find it helpful to start from the ground up…

Parts of a Record Player: Isolation Feet

…so let’s begin with isolation feet. It’s hugely important to understand that the impact of vibration & resonance on your turntable goes well beyond the skipping of the stylus in the groove. As an example, when you play your music, your speakers resonate everywhere (including on the floor and up the walls!). The more effectively you can separate your turntable from any and all external low-frequency vibration & resonance, the better it will sound. The feet that support the turntable are therefore significant, particularly for folks who don’t want to bother with the likes of fancy audiophile racks, platforms, and so on.

A good isolation foot usually implements some sort of spring and/or damping material (such as TPE and various types of rubber). Such a foot is good at absorbing resonance coming up from under the turntable. Another tried & true foot is the classic conical one, known in the plural as spike feet. These minimize the contact surface between your record player and the surface on which it rests, disallowing a good amount of vibration & resonance to travel upward. There are many combinations of these designs as well as plenty more ‘sophisticated’ approaches out there. Try upping your isolation for better sound. You’ll hear it in varying degrees in your playback’s clarity, spatial awareness, and low-level detail.

Parts of a Record Player: Plinth

The feet support the plinth, otherwise referred to as the turntable base or platform. Mass & solidity are paramount here. A hollow hunk of plastic serving as a plinth will resonate internally, regardless of how well you isolate the turntable. A plinth that’s optimized to give you the best sound will typically be solid (not hollow or minimally hollow) and will be made of something resonance-absorbing, resonance-dispersing, or some combination of the two.

MDF and other off-shoots of wood are typically good and keep production costs low. As plinth isolation gets more involved, many turntable makers aim to disperse and/or eliminate unwanted resonance a) through uniquely shaped plinths and/or b) by eliminating as much of the plinth as possible. Many audiophile turntables on the market lack a conventional chassis for this reason. Where there is a plinth, keep in mind that resonance not inherently bad. Some materials and combinations of materials are used specifically because of the way they resonate (their resonant frequency). The idea, though, is that resonance is controlled and deliberate.

Parts of a Record Player: Drive System

Next, we move to what’s usually mounted to the plinth: the direct drive system. The conversation regarding belt vs. direct drive is a big one that we will save for another day, but suffice it to say that a direct drive turntable uses a motor that drives the turntable platter directly, i.e., the motor & platter are coupled. We will focus today on the belt-drive system, which is widely agreed to be capable of better sonic performance (again, there are no absolutes – there are damn good direct drives out there).

There are a couple of reasons the belt drive system is most common these days: a) in the consumer range, it keeps costs down and b) in the vinyl aficionado range, it de-couples the motor from the record platter. The belt (usually some sort of rubber) is what drives the platter, so motor noise and/or resonance are isolated from the record-playing surface, amounting to a lower noise floor which in turn makes musical information more available to your ears. Stand-alone motors that are entirely decoupled from the plinth are more effective still.

The quality of the power supply, motor, and motor mounting is also very important. Shortcuts in the development and production of these parts amount to noisier motors that vibrate more, and with lower speed tolerances. Your turntable cartridge, cantilever (the metal rod that houses the diamond), and stylus (some folks say ‘turntable needle’) are highly sensitive and will only amplify unwanted noise.

Parts of a Record Player: Platter

Now we move on to the platter – that which rotates atop the drive system. Principles here are similar to that of the plinth. High mass is a good thing (less prone to being affected) and selected materials should be anti-resonant. You’ll find plenty of low mass aluminum platters on the market. When you get a chance, remove a similar platter and give it a rap or two. You’ll hear it ringing, which is far less than ideal if sound quality is your priority. Steel is better because it’s less resonant and more massive, acrylic is acoustically dead.

More advanced platters use various coatings and/or ‘sandwich’ designs that combine materials to affect resonance. The sky is the limit.

Turntable Mats and Slipmats

The turntable mat is of course the last line of defense in terms of isolating your cartridge & stylus from external unwanted vibration & resonance. As with the above, everything under the sun has been at least tried as a record mat. Some mats are meant to couple the record to the platter (to simulate the resonance properties of the platter and/or record itself), or to de-couple (to add another resonance barrier). Since it's in direct contact with your records, which in turn makes contact with your stylus, the record mat can make audible differences in playback.

For the record (no pun intended… seriously), most stocks felt mats are OEM, and their main function is to protect your vinyl from the hard surface underneath. Their greatest value is in peace of mind. They do little in the way of promoting sound quality. Cork turntable mats or rubber slipmats do the most when it comes to dampening.

The Tonearm is Essential

Needless to say, as the carrier of the phono cartridge, the tonearm is instrumental in getting the most from your system. There should be no ‘play’ in the tonearm bearing, meaning basically that tube should not wobble in any direction. Here again, plastic is no good. It resonates and is not rigid. Rigidity in the tonearm structure allows your cartridge to do its best work, unimpeded by vibration & resonance that negatively color the sound. Aluminum & carbon fiber are commonly used materials that are light, rigid, and anti-resonant. Basic elements for pivoted tonearms (most common) are the headshell, armtube, bearing & counterweight.

The headshell (sometimes user-replaceable) is the end-portion of the tonearm to which you mount the cartridge. We recommend a carbon fiber headshell.

The armtube is the prevailing length of the tonearm, longer in curved tonearms. As a general rule, a longer tonearm allows for less ‘error’ in the tonearm’s arc across the disc, yielding cartridge alignment geometry that’s closer to optimal.

The bearing structure is at the pivot point. Its job is to provide secure and fluid lateral movement of the arm. The counterweight is used to balance the cartridge and at an optimal value so that the right amount of VTF (vertical tracking force) is applied to the stylus in the groove. The anti-skate mechanism can take one of several forms, but its task is to offset the inward-directed momentum of the tonearm so that the only force applied to the stylus is vertical force (so that the stylus retrieves information equally from each lateral groove wall).

Phono Cartridges AKA Record Player Needles

sumiko phono cartridge pro-ject turntable

The cartridge and stylus are a larger conversation that we will discuss down the road, but let’s briefly go over the basics. Put simply, the stylus (the actual diamond) is responsible for responding to the contours of the record grove. At the opposite end of the cantilever (a metal rod with diamond bonded to it) are magnets and coils that generate an electrical signal based on the motion of the stylus. This principle is known as electromotive force (energy created by motion).

The signal is passively sent to the cartridge output pins to which the tonearm lead wires are connected. The tonearm lead wires carry the signal through the arm, out the turntable jacks (usually RCA), and over to the phono preamp. Moving magnet & moving coil are the two main types of phono cartridge. If a cartridge has a replacement stylus that you can swap out yourself, you can usually infer it’s a moving magnet. If the stylus is not user-replaceable, it’s a moving coil in most cases.

Keep Dust Away With a Dust Cover

Last, atop the whole machine, you’ll usually find the dust cover (some record players don’t accommodate a proper cover). Its main utility is just as its name suggests; it’s a cover that protects your gear from dust. Of course, one should use it for its practical function and/or maybe aesthetics, but it’s best to remove it or to leave it open (if hinged) while listening. The dust cover is a known resonator – it creates a cavern over your turntable, like listening to your vinyl collection inside a cave.

Feeling Like an Expert?

We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of record player parts & principles. Indeed your CD player or MP3 player might offer a bit more convenience, but we love the notion that listening to vinyl forces you to engage more with an album proper. Truly it’s a different listening experience entirely. Turntable parts can be a lot to consider, and as always, we advise you to engage with your collection to the extent that’s best for you as the listener. The main priority is that you’re having fun. Some folks will dive in deep and make a hobby of it (or even a profession!), others will spin records from their kitchen countertop while washing dishes. What matters is that it brings you joy.

 

Happy listening!


Pro-Ject USA felt turntable mat

Vinyl 101: What is a Slipmat? Do You Need One?

If you're wondering "what is a slipmat?" or "do I need a slipmat for my turntable", you may not realize how a mat improves your vinyl experience!

Most audiophiles don’t realize how much debt they owe to DJ-ing and hip-hop culture for the recent interest in turntables, and vinyl records. However, one thing probably needs clarification, the difference between a slipmat, and a standard turntable mat.

Crazy, I know, but remember, this is a group that likes to discuss, compare, contrast, and sometimes get into heated discussions about sound quality. So, let’s focus on the terminology, materials, and applications, so you can join the party when everyone’s talking about your record player!

 

First, the DJ Slipmat

 

The true reason for a turntable slipmat is to allow the record to spin freely, so that a DJ can back cue a record to the precise spot they want a cut to begin (also done in the broadcast industries years ago) when transitioning from track to track.

While some analog DJ’s use a leather slipmat, the weapon of choice is a felt slipmat, as it allows the most freedom of movement, both back and forth on the platter. There really are no cork slipmats, because they do not allow for movement of the record on the platter, but we’ll get into the usefulness of a cork mat later.

What a lot of people either don’t know or remember is that in order to set your record player up for DJ use, the VTA (vertical tracking angle) on the stylus needs to be set to 0 degrees – straight up and down. That way when you are cueing, or back-cueing a record, the stylus will move freely.

Using the standard 15-degree VTA will cause the stylus to shear off when scratching or back-cueing. While this “straight up and down” VTA scheme will affect normal playback somewhat, in a DJ situation at maximum volume, no one will notice!

 

Turntable Mats for Hi-Fi Lovers

pro-ject slipmat turntable

Looking at a more hi-fi application, the turntable mat is a different accessory. The tonearm, platter, headshell, cartridge, and even the turntable platter mat need to work together as a high quality playback system to achieve maximum fidelity.

DJ turntables, like the ubiquitous Technics SL-1200 utilize a direct drive system, in part for their quick startup time, and maximum torque, to aid in a quick recovery from scratching and cueing. As Pro-Ject turntables all utilize belt drive, we will concentrate on their approach with different mat materials for audiophile playback.

Though some turntable manufacturers choose a felt mat as a standard option, its biggest downfall is the lack of anti-static properties this material has. In some cases, this can make things in an audiophile setup worse.

Some of those “clicks” you hear when playing a record might not even be dirt embedded in the grooves, it might just be micro bits of static electricity between the vinyl record itself and the felt mat.

 

What is a Slipmat Versus a Platter Mat Versus a Felt Mat?

 

Depending on the turntable engineer’s intent when designing a turntable, they can decide how much the platter will assist in dampening the micro-vibrations that occur just from the act of the stylus tracking through the record grooves.

Some turntables (and even some in the Pro-Ject lineup) use synthetic platter materials, like acrylic to achieve these goals. Often the acrylic platter is designed in concert with some kind of record weight or clamp, that goes over the spindle, holding down the record in the center. This can make for a better platter to album interface, allowing the cartridge and stylus to extract more information from those minuscule record grooves.

This is a challenging experience when listening to an EP versus playing a 12-inch LP. Turntable manufacturers making acrylic platters suggest no mat at all, but like everything in audio, you can experiment.

The most popular turntable mats are usually rubber mats or cork mats. Turntable Lab is a great place to start. They have a number of different mats for Pro-Ject and other tables, including a full line of felt slip mats and decorative mats. Even if you aren’t going to be scratching for a house party with your Pro-Ject table, adding a cool felt decorative mat is a great way to personalize your setup.

 

Adding a Slipmat or Turntable Mat to Your Deck

 

One thing to remember when adding a rubber turntable mat, or a cork mat to your turntable is that you will need to reset your turntables’ VTA, as these mats are almost always thicker than the felt mat they replace.

Adding even a millimeter or two to your platter’s height will throw the VTA adjustment off.

Should you forget to reset VTA, you may notice your records sounding a little bit duller or slightly brighter (more emphasis on treble) than they did before. That’s when you know it’s time to make a fine adjustment. Then you can start listening seriously.

Depending on the resolution of your system, changing the mat will change the resonant characteristics of the platter, and in the end, change how your system will ultimately sound. Sometimes a mat can make all the difference in the world, even with a modest setup. The most fun (and sometimes most frustrating) part of analog playback is that everything makes a difference.

Cork mats tend to be slightly more benign in sound character, while the rubber mats tend to have more of a dampening effect on playback. One cartridge will respond better to one, and you’ll know by listening, when you’ve got it right. Again, if you live in a fairly dry environment, it might be worthwhile to switch to a rubber or cork mat just to minimize the static effects.

 

Turntable Mats are Functional and Decorative

 

In the end, adding a mat to your turntable, or changing the one you have will give you a sonic improvement at best, or up the cool factor at worst. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s an inexpensive tweak. Give it a go and see what you think!


45rpm vinyl records EPs

Vinyl Records 101: What Does EP Stand For?

If you’re new to collecting and listening to vinyl records, you may have heard the term EP tossed around, but what does EP stand for?

It’s an abbreviation for Extended Play, and this case, more minutes of music than a standard 45 r.p.m. single, yet not as many as a full album.

Spending a bit of time hanging out on any number of message boards, and social media sites will offer different definitions. We'll try to be comprehensive here.

What Does EP Stand For vs LP Records?

A standard, single platter, “long play,” (or LP) vinyl release usually has less than 40 minutes of music spread over two sides. An EP has less music and less space for music if it's in a smaller format.

For many people in the music industry, the extended play record eschews the larger 1.5-inch hole in the middle of a 7-inch single and utilizes the 9/32” spindle hole from a standard long-playing album. This was incredibly handy for people with portable phonographs, that would only accommodate a 7-inch disc.

Playing an EP can be tricky for new record collectors. If you don't have a 45rpm adapter, you'll risk your tonearm skating into treacherous territory. The adapter allows you to play 7-inch 45rpm records as smoothly as your 12-inch LPs.

Why Were EPs First Created?

One of the primary functions of the EP was to not only get new music out now, but to offer a less expensive way of getting a “hit” in listeners hands.

At the height of the punk rock era, some bands arguably had shorter music careers, and many only released EP’s. Indie record labels saw it as being more DIY, and more in keeping with the ethos of punk rock.

45 RPM RCA collection

Knowing what does an EP stand for requires knowing its history.

The EP was officially introduced by RCA in 1952, with Britain’s EMI records in April of 1954. Often, the EP was a short compilation, either featuring a few tracks from a new artist, hits from a new or upcoming album, and still other times, either multiple versions of a single; extended mixes, alternative mixes, or the “radio” version, which was often edited down in the better hope of airplay on the radio.

Many a rapper would release a single track, with three to five alternative mixes on their EP. Eminem’s Slim Shady EP was the disc that launched his career.

The 7 and 10-inch EP’s were usually only good for three or four songs. Later, the 12-inch EP would extend this to five or six tracks. Fewer songs on these 12-inch EP’s meant bigger grooves. If you can find these, or their close cousins, the 12-inch “maxi-single,” they always have more dynamics and can really be cranked up!

Another industry favorite was to release one or two versions of the track, and one or two b-side tracks. It was almost like getting two 45s in one!

Many associate EP’s, regardless of diameter as a 45 r.p.m. record, but many of them are pressed at 33r.p.m. All of these are some of the best sounding records you can find, if and when you can find them. Every vinyl lover should have at least a few. But why?

What EPs Meant to the Music Industry?

Some industry vets claim the EP was a cost-saver or even a loss leader. Back in an all-analog world, it was certainly easier to mix and master EPs and even cheaper to get them out the door. CD Baby calls the EP “the gumbo of recorded music,” suggesting this format to their users as an accessible way to reach a wide swathe of fans.

No doubt many DJ’s on the scene took advantage of well-cataloged cases and crates of records for easy access during intense sets. Think of this as the first portable way to categorize music. A skilled DJ knew the contents of their collection intimately and organized the records meticulously, so just the right track could be added to the mix with perfect timing.

A fully analog playlist could be edited as the evening went on. While some EPs came in basic white wrappers, as the format reached its heyday, the artwork often mirrored that of the album the tracks came from or at least were produced to the same level of creative craftsmanship.

Some even had unique artwork, posters, stickers, and other memorabilia to go with.

Can a Cassette Be an EP?

maxi cassette Depeche Mode Personal Jesus EP

As cassettes were taking some of the thunder out of the LP record, and CDs were just beginning to make inroads to how we played, stored, and transported music, the EP/maxi-single concept stayed strong as ever. Only the method of delivery changed.

Now cass-singles (usually about $2.98ea) had their own section of the record stores, soon to be released by CDs with only a few tracks.

One personal fave is Depeche Mode’s CD single with no less than 3 versions of “Dangerous,” and 5 versions of “Personal Jesus.” A quick perusal of Discogs reveals just how many variations on the theme there are for collectors.

What Does EP stand for in 2021?

Asking "what does an EP stand for" in 2021 requires we offer a new definition.

Even in our digital music world, the acronym once meant to describe the extended play record still stands, often with new music. Artists, with a large fan base, often release EPs in a digital format before the full-length album is available.

A quick perusal of Tidal, Spotify, Qobuz, or whatever streaming service you might use often has digital Eps instead of the physical media we grew up with – and some of those Eps and Maxi-Singles are now available online. But because this is the Pro-Ject site, we’re guessing your thinking vinyl.

Yes, you can still get in the game, but like all things vinyl, prices have gone up from about 10 years when no one knew what these gems were. Of course, you can still grab a copy of Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” for five bucks, but a sealed maxi-single of Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” is gonna set you back 200 large – if you can find one.

And once you get a handful, Amazon has some great record cases to devote to your collection.

Lovely as it is to stream millions of tracks, and be able to create playlists at will, many of us still remember laboring over a mixtape and squeezing every last drop of music onto the side of a C60 or C90 cassette. There's a lot of pride in showing up at a party with the said mixtape, or even better, a crate full of singles, ready to entertain the evening’s guests.

The continued ubiquity of new and used EPs means that it's usually easy to find lots of great tracks at a low price and spinning them at a party for guests or enjoying an intimate night of listening.