Imagine hosting friends and family for your first ever housewarming party. You give them a tour to show off the new couch, the just-out-of-the-box blender, the spare bedroom you never thought possible, and the one stained-glass window you claim made you fall in love with the place. Then, after each guest is settled with drink and snack in hand, you make your way over to your modest but blossoming record collection, unsleeve Sticky Fingers (with zipper!), and cue it up on your turntable.
But around two minutes into “Brown Sugar”—right in the heart of Bobby Keys’ sax solo—the record starts popping. Then it starts skipping over and over. Conversations quickly halt, guests begin to squirm, and by the time you shuffle over to lift the needle ahead, everyone has gotten up and left. Your life is ruined. Here’s what may have gone wrong.
A scratch or foreign object is impeding proper playback. It’s possible that gunk is gunking up your audio experience. If your records are dirty, there are plenty of bumps in the road during which your stylus will jump, skip, or straight-up halt. Would you rather drive on a ravaged gravel backroad or a freshly paved superhighway? Clean your records—especially the used ones you recently purchased—and continue to keep an eye on the buildup of gunk. Gunk. And scratches.
The record is warped. This might be due to tight, improper storage or that your crate of records is exposed to direct sunlight a few too many hours a day. A warp can oftentimes be undetectable until a record starts spinning, but even the slightest one can make the needle jump from hurdle to hurdle. Make sure to carefully examine each record upon purchase—utilizing the store’s listening station if one is made available—and for the love of all that is holy, store your collection away from sunny windows, radiators, etc.
A record’s grooves are worn to the point of no return. If the needle has nothing in which to settle, it will skate along the wax. You can find this problem with well-DJ’d records that have been spun thousands of times and are just generally beaten up. You’ll also find it with flat-out poorly made records. Flexi-discs often have this problem—not necessarily because the grooves are worn down, but because the grooves barely exist.
The turntable is not on a level, sturdy surface. Chances are excellent that if you live in a popular urban center in an apartment complex that hasn’t been updated for 50 years, your hardwood floors are a tad askew. Be mindful of the placement of the shelf/armoire/entertainment center upon which you place your turntable and make sure it’s level. Also, if the surface wobbles, it’s not fit to support a VHS collection, much less a record player.
You're stomping. What the hell? This one’s simple. Take off your boots and walk around your apartment in socks. Turntables are delicate machines from which sound is conducted via a tempermental, gliding needle. Lighten some of the lead in your foot when passing by. Your downstairs neighbors will appreciate it.
Your speakers are vibrating to an outrageous degree. This cause seems especially rare, but if you like to let loose and crank the bass, it’s possible that the reverberations from your floor speakers could affect playback—particularly if the speakers flank your turntable. A simple solution could be to build modest stands upon which the speakers can sit. And again, your downstairs neighbors will thank you.
The tonearm is off-balance. If the turntable’s tonearm isn’t weighted enough, the stylus is going to skate, touching down on the record for split seconds at a time before bouncing back up. This is a common problem for first-time turntable users, because the process of finding the right balance can be more difficult than a simple flip of a switch.
To give a very basic explanation: Set your tonearm via its counterweight at a level, suspended position and then adjust the tracking dial to the appropriate weight. If you’re fortunate enough to have an original manual, use it—or find a helpful guide online. Weighting your tonearm by setting a penny atop the cartridge might seem clever and old-school, but too much weight can damage the integrity of a record.
The stylus itself is damaged beyond repair. Remember the gunk that prevented you from kicking back and enjoying the sweet boogie of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres? Well, when a stylus is swatted by gunk again and again, it eventually becomes ravaged. And once that happens in totality, you’re rolling the dice each time you drop it to wax. Keep a close eye on your needle and listen for imperfections. And don’t be hesitant to replace the cartridge. Your vinyl will appreciate it.
Or maybe that stylus is just dirty. The reason to keep a close eye on the stylus (as stated above) is that if it does begin to act up and skip, oftentimes a good once-over to pick out the dust and dirt will suffice to get it back in proper groove. Maybe you can very carefully pull out the schmutz with your own fingers, but be careful. To clean it properly, acquire the right tools.
The turntable is cheap and poorly made. Those kitschy, portable Crosley record players work perfectly fine as spares for bedrooms and offices, but they are not really well-equipped for supreme home-stereo usage. The components of cheap turntables don’t bend as much as they break, and often a gust of wind can knock a tonearm right off its path. If you’re planning to entertain guests, look to spend over $100 (or probably much more) on a well-built turntable.
Terminology and lingo that every vinyl lover should know.