Setting the proper tracking force for your turntable and cartridge is vital for improving sound quality but ensuring your stylus and cartridge aren’t subjected to unnecessary wear and tear. If you’re new to the world of turntables or just looking for a quick refresher, this guide is for you!
What is tracking force?
Tracking force is the weight applied to the needle of a turntable to keep it in place as the vinyl spins. If the tracking force is set too heavy, it could damage the record and needle and cause distorted sound quality. If set too light, the needle could skip across the grooves, potentially scratching the record and unnecessary potential damage to the stylus.
Tracking force is measured in grams. The amount of force used is determined by the specific cartridge you’re using, not the turntable model. Cartridges will include the recommended tracking force weight in the manual, but you can also find this information online.
Simply search “[cartridge brand] [model number] tracking force” to find what you’re looking for.
How to adjust tracking force
After finding your cartridge’s recommended tracking force weight, you’ll first want to make sure your turntable’s tonearm is balanced. Check out this helpful video guide if you need help balancing the tonearm.
Once the tonearm is balanced, adjust the counterweight found on the end of the tonearm to whatever the recommended tracking force weight is.
For example, if the recommended tracking force weight is 3 grams, rotate the counterweight to the #3 position.
It’s also recommended to adjust your turntable’s anti-skate to the same number as your tracking force. In the example above, set your anti-skate to 3 as well. Check out our full guide for more information on how turntable anti-skate works.
You’re now ready to begin playing your records!
How do you know if the tracking force is set correctly?
If you have an expensive turntable cartridge, you may want to verify the turntable tracking force is set correctly before actually playing a record. There are a few ways to do this:
Method 1: Digital tracking force gauge
A digital tracking force gauge is an inexpensive scale you can purchase that can potentially save you tons of money. Before you play music or after resetting your tracking force, simply place the digital tracking force gauge on the platter of your turntable and lower the cartridge.
If the scale reads the correct weight, you’re all set! If not, adjust your tracking weights and tonearm balance and try again. You can also adjust the counterweight while the cartridge rests on the gauge; just be careful.
Method 2: Digital scale
Instead of a dedicated tracking force gauge, a digital scale that reads in grams can be used. The process is similar to using a force gauge – just place the scale on your turntable platter and lower the stylus onto it. Adjust tracking force as necessary.
How do you know if your tracking force is too high?
If tracking force is set too high, there will often be distortion when playing records, and your tonearm will seem unnecessarily heavy.
Of course, the best way to verify that your tracking force is set too high is to measure the weight with a gauge or scale. See above for more details.
How do you know if your tracking force is too low?
If the tracking force is set too low, your record needle may often skip across the grooves of a record during playback. The tonearm will seem light and prone to floating.
Low tracking force can be more dangerous than high tracking force because the stylus can just skip across the surface of a record, causing irreparable damage to both the record and the stylus.
How often should you check your tracking force?
If your turntable stays stationary, you should not need to check it very often – maybe once every few months. However, your tonearm balancing and tracking force should be reset whenever your record player or turntable is moved.
If you have an expensive cartridge, having a tracking force gauge can give some much-needed peace of mind as it only takes a couple of seconds to check the tracking force, and you can do so often.
A tracking force sin: “The Penny Trick”
The “Penny trick” has been around for decades and is still being talked about on many popular forums and websites such as Reddit. The trick was developed to add additional weight to record players. Record players are different than turntables and do not typically have the ability to manually adjust tracking force calibration due to not having a counterweight.
We urge you NOT to use this trick, as it will damage your vinyl collection permanently!
A US Penny weighs 2.5 grams, combine that with the additional weight from the record player, and you have a recipe for disaster.
If your record player tonearm is skipping, examine the record and platter for any misalignments. If none are found, try replacing the stylus. If the issue persists, it might be time to have the record player serviced or consider purchasing a turntable instead.
Final thoughts about tracking force
By now, you should be an expert on tracking force. Whether you’re a new record collector or have been doing so for decades, setting the tracking force of your turntable will never change.
Of course, there are some cool gadgets to help you do it more effectively and efficiently, but the process has never changed.
We hope you find this guide helpful – thanks for reading!
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.