Soundsmith Cartridge Alignment
General Soundsmith Cartridge alignment Version 4.25 ~ How to align your NEW or Soundsmith rebuilt cartridge
To properly enjoy the best performance possible from your cartridge, proper care and alignment are required.
This includes: (click any of the below)
- Stylus Cleaning
- Vertical Tracking Force (VTF)
- Overhang Adjustment
- Anti-skating Adjustment
- SRA (Stylus Rake Angle)
How do I clean the stylus?? Do I use a wet cleaner each time, or often? NO!!!
A DRY soft brush is somewhere between good and “OK”, but it is far better is to use some “fun stik” made by DAP – this is the blue clay-like stuff you get in the stationery department. Use it just before or after every play. Make a “pedestal” of the jut the right height to the right side of the platter, and place a small squashed ball of fun stik on the pedestal at the right height so that you can use the cueing mechanism to allow the stylus to drop onto the fun stik. The other good option is to squash a small ball (half the size of a dime) FLAT onto a coin, such as a US quater. Then place THAT on the platter.
Then cue DOWN and up on the fun-stik several times. Be VERY care full not to DRAG the coin or turn the platter when the stylus is down on the fun-stik or you risk damaging the stylus or cartridge.
Do this several times, each time moving the fun stik to a new spot when the stylus is raised, so that when it comes down it hits a new spot.
If you need to do this on a B&O table, make the pedestal JUST the right height so the fun stik is JUST under the stylus position & push the arm down a tiny bit to have the stylus hit the fun-stik to allow the stylus to dig into the fun stik.
Using this method every record should eliminate the need to wet clean ever, BUT if this doesn’t cure a distortion problem due to debris build up, THEN either use the supplied brush and some RUBBING alcohol (70%, water 30% NO COLORING OR FRAGRANCE) and gently stroke the stylus back to front only. Only wet clean when the dry clean doesn’t work.
DO NOT WET CLEAN OFTEN - TO DO SO WILL POTENTIALLY CAUSE SEVERE DAMAGE TO THE STYLUS MOUNTING AND CAUSE THE DIAMOND TO COME OFF. USE THE ABOVE BLUE-STIK METHOD.
If you don’t have a good VERY SOFT brush, purchase a WATERCOLOR brush with non-synthetic fibers, one that has bristles that are about 1/8” in cross section. CUT the bristles straight across with a small scissors, making them about 1/8” long. Break or cut off the wood handle so the brush is VERY SHORT, and has very little wood handle. This will minimize accidents and reduce jitter when handling and using.
ABOUT RECORD CLEANING:
DO NOT TALK towards your records. They are neither listening, not do they need a talking to. You need to listen to them. The reason is this: when you talk, you spit. Yes, even you. Fine drops. You cannot see them because the record is textured with grooves. When the stylus hits the dried spit, this GLUE then sticks to all the dirt and dust in the grooves. It only takes a few revolutions for this to happen, and so much debris can build up on the stylus, you will have worse than distortion – The stylus may not even track the record.
What do I suggest?? A record cleaner – It’s a MUST HAVE item for any record enthusiast. How much do you invest in one?? As much as you are able – the return will be many times its cost.
Cleaning your records well is the BEST investment you can make in protecting that great sound of your analog system.
As far as vertical tracking force (VTF), always start with the recommended vertical tracking force from the manufacturer for a particular make and model of cartridge. It may be possible to lower it after we have repaired or rebuilt your cartridge, but there are so many factors, including variations in tone arm design and condition, that we urge our customers to invest in a test record that will aid them in finding the correct VTF. Too low a VTF will damage both record and stylus, and too high will cause too much wear.
The proper amount of VTF will vary from cartridge to cartridge, EVEN within a single model, due to manufacturing tolerances. One who plays loudly recorded music will need a bit more, and visa-versa.
When you are adjusting your VTF, if you use a test record, adjust the anti-skating beforehand as described below, and then fine tune the VTF to allow no audible distortion with a test record with a tone recorded at 12dB over 0 dB modulation.
This adjustment provides a best compromise for your “pivoting” arm – it will minimize distortion if done correctly. Please either open the attachment and print it out, OR go to the following website and print out this free overhang gauge – instructions are fairly easy and on the print out itself – PLEASE note the metric grid at the bottom of the gauge, and make sure you have printed it out sized correctly. If not, you may have to enlarge or reduce a bit. I use photo quality paper for my final print out, which make a durable gauge!
Scan down the page and click/print the link that says “Align.pdf”
Bear in mind that one should always align the CANTILEVER with the grid; the body angle is irrelevant, as is the stylus guard slot, which can be off a bit.
Notice that when down on the record, friction may “pull” the cantilever slightly to one side or the other, so after the anti-skating is set correctly, always good to double check the cantilever agreement with the grid lines. This is true for ANY cantilevered cartridge design.
(specific VPI information is at the end of this section)
YES – you DO need anti-skating. It is just plain simple physics. BUT……the industry has gotten it WRONG. (see my notes at the end of this anti-skating message for more details)
Make sure that the anti-skating is well set; there are many ways to tell, but this is a method suggested by Frank Schroeder, with which we heartily agree. PLEASE NOTE – this will not agree or work with test records designed for higher amounts of anti-skating. The reasoning from Frank Schroeder for this method and level of A-S skating is as follows: the level of anti-skating used should create EQUAL forces on each groove wall for *most* of the record. Since this force is dependent on the level of recorded modulation (how loud the recorded music is on the disk) setting it for a “worst case” “loud music passage” level is totally inappropriate. Setting it where it provides equal force per groove wall for where music spend 80-90% of its time (30-40% modulation) makes FAR more sense, both from the standpoint of listening, and wear.
When you have it adjusted right, the arm will track on the SURFACE of the record (not in the groove) at the end of the record on the un-pressed flat space where the run-out groove is – it should track SLOWLY INWARDS toward the center at a MUCH SLOWER RATE than IF IT WERE ACTUALLY in the end groove. If you do that, then the best average Anti-Skating is set correctly.
The following is useful, but not all-telling. With medium or high compliance cartridges (NOT with most moving coil design) - LOOK at the position of the cantilever when it is up in the air, and when it is on the record, both at the beginning, and at the end. Look for a change in position both initially upon set-down, as well as after 1-2 minutes. If you DO THIS BEFORE adjusting as above, you will have a gross method to verify that you have problems with skating forces, as it should not change position - if it does, the A-S is VERY wrong. The best way to tell if it is very wrong is to look how the cartridge behaves on the flat surface, as described above.
Almost always, most tables are set so they have too much Anti skating, or an adjustment that cannot be turned down enough, OR the range and fine control is terrible, or you have none.
Usually, most folks use far too much anti-skating, as evidenced by the thousands of cartridges I have rebuilt over the last 40+ years – as evidenced by observation of the outer edge (right channel) of the diamond to be worn far more than the inner, or left channel.
A properly designed anti-skating is non-linear, as it should of course increase A-S automatically as the cartridge approaches the inner grooves.
Frank Schroeder and I are of the same opinion about anti-skating – and that renders MOST records that provide an anti-skating track totally in error – they are recorded at about 80-90% modulation – or HIGHER - and expect you to set the A-S force so that there is no distortion (or equal amounts on both channels if the cartridge tracks poorly).
The problem with these tracks is that since the required level of A-S force is a dependent of the amount of modulation, it has you adjust anti-skating at far too high a level. This would be OK, if you are listening to music that is (by nature of the music) at constant maximum crescendo, without normal musical dynamics - going from loud to soft. Very few pieces of music are like this. When you adjust for this level on a “test record”, that means that you are very much overcompensated with far too much anti-skating as you have adjusted it for where music does NOT spend most of its time. It spends it at about 30-40% modulation levels, and adjusting the A-S with these “test” records results in far too much A-S force; too much stylus force on the right channel, and far too little on the left.
Since there is no properly recorded track that allows proper setting of A-S (there will be such on our new Soundsmith adjustment record), the method that Frank Schroeder discovered through careful reverse engineering works without tools, and without a special record.
If one sets the stylus on a smooth surface of a record (at the end, in-between the run out grooves) – the tip of the stylus has a drag on the surface that somewhat similar to what it would have if it were in a groove. This is due to a calculation of “force per unit area” with consideration of the rheology of the material – vinyl.
Suffice it to say that it is “similar” enough for this method to work well, especially since the method was reverse engineered/calibrated properly by Frank Schroeder to be correct for 30-40% record modulation. It then becomes an easy matter to set the A-S and observe the movement of the arm. For a given VTF (any amount of VTF) – set the A-S so that the arm VERY SLOWLY drifts inwards when placed on the SURFACE (NOT IN A GROOVE) at the end of a record. You will have a moment to do this until the stylus “pops” into the run-out groove.
This works for ANY amount of VTF required, for ANY cartridge. It will set the A-S for EQUAL force per groove wall for 30-40% groove modulation levels, at ANY VTF, for ANY cartridge.
ANTI-SKATING for VPI ARMS - IMPORTANT ISSUES:
Some of us who own VPI tables (Yes, we do) are aware that VPI’s suggestion was not worry about anti-skating, or they gave instructions to twist the signal cable one way or the other to affect a proper anti-skating force. I have found that this is a VERY gross method, which does not allow for proper much less accurate anti-skating adjustment. VPI is now providing an anti-skating device, which we strongly insist you use. If you do not own the VPI supplied string type anti-skating device, please get one !! One must appreciate that its use does take some time to get right, as one is working against not only the skating force for the cartridge itself, but sometimes the side force from the stiffness of the signal cable as well. I have occasionally had to add small brass washers (if needed), sometimes between 3 and 5 of them, to the far small arm that does not have the nylon string attached. I positioned them between the rubber o-rings that they supply to hold them in place and at the proper height – and it allowed me to adjust the force to exactly what was needed. Patience is often required.
The VPI arm wire can sometime cause a large sideways force to be placed on the arm. We suggest BEFORE you start, unplug the connector, remove the arm and hold it upside down horizontally, with the wire now hanging down. Lightly squeeze the wire between your thumb and forefinger – starting at the tone arm, and slide your fingers all the way to the connector. This will slightly RELAX the wire. Turn the arm over, rest it on the point bearing, and gently loop or drape the wire up and down with no extra twist or tension and without rotating the wire - rotate the connector minimally to orient the red dot, and then plug the connector in. Then perform the test as below.
Make certain your have disconnected the VPI anti-skating, and perform the below test CAREFULLY, placing the stylus on the smooth section of the run-out area – NOT in the groove. The arm should skate INWARDS rapidly. Then hook up the VPI anti-skate mechanism, and begin to adjust it to get the below result. You MAY have to add some small metal washers to the far arm of the anti-skate mechanism to get the arm to slow down – to have it not run inwards quickly. It will take some patience.
When you have it adjusted right, the arm will track slowly inwards on the SURFACE of a record (not in a groove) at the end of the record on the un-pressed flat space where the run-out groove is. Again, when adjusted correctly, it should track SLOWLY INWARDS toward the center at a MUCH SLOWER RATE than IF IT WERE ACTUALLY in the end groove. If you do that, then the best average Anti-Skating is set correctly.
Again – HOOK UP THE ANTI-SKATING NYLON WIRE AND add JUST enough Anti-skating to slow it down to the desired rate as described above. Using one or more washers (if needed) on the far arm of the device will ADD anti-skating (and slow down the arms inward speed) as will hooking the nylon wire higher up on the other arm. MAKE SURE that you position the angle (CW or CCW looking DOWN at the device) so that it will NOT flip over to the right when you are at the end of the record……. PATIENCE…….PATIENCE…..
Azimuth adjustment is important – We realize that some arms do not allow for such, so we have some suggestions how one can accomplish this with a non-adjustable arm – see the end of this section
Always start with the cartridge as physically neutral as possible as viewed from the front. It should be as flat as possible. Your “best setting” is here or not more than 3 degrees from this position, either clockwise or counterclockwise.
To verify the best position, use a test record (Acoustic Sounds test record is fine – Side 1, tracks 1&2) where one channel is modulated at a time, and LISTEN (or measure properly) the OTHER channel for crosstalk or bleed through. Do the same thing vice-versa with the other channel. When the crosstalk, or bleed through is roughly the same, that is the best azimuth. Many cartridges can be azimuth adjusted in this manner, because the bleed through for each channel will be roughly the same for most cartridges when the azimuth is correct.
It is important to note that cartridge alignment devices that rely on equal channel balance, and identical channel separation in order to adjust AZIMUTH will not always work to achieve best azimuth adjustment. In fact, some will actually provide a far worse azimuth recommendation than using a mirror, or an equal reflection in the surface of the record while playing as viewed from the front. As a result, there is a caveat with these devices that rely on identical cartridge characteristics. While it is true that a defective cartridge may have channel asymmetry from the standpoint of one channel having far worse separation than the other, it is also quite common with Soundsmith cartridges to have one channel that has far better separation than the other. Not only will 20-30% of all cartridges have dissimilar channel separation, they will also not have identical channel output when comparing channels. For example, one channel may be 6dB “worse” for separation than the other at the BEST azimuth setting for the channel with poorer crosstalk performance. In other words, one channel may have extremely good separation or crosstalk when compared with the other. These differences do not indicate a defective cartridge, they simply point out how difficult it is to make a cartridge with identical separation performance and channel balance. So, how does one adjust under this situation?? In the near future, a device called the CartRight, available in both hardware and software forms will be available through the Soundsmith. This device will permit accurate adjustments to be performed even by the most novice of audiophiles, and will allow perfect azimuth adjustment for any and all cartridges - especially those with any asymmetrical performance. ../../html/cartright/index.html
Regarding azimuth adjustment, the method here is to ignore channel balance issue, and the find the critical azimuth point for the WORST channel where it JUST achieves best separation and to stop there. It is likely that you will find that continued adjustment in that direction will NOT result in improvement of separation for that channel.
In other words, if one channel is always much better in terms of less crosstalk than the other, tune the azimuth by using the worse of the two channels. Again, the best way to tune the “worst” channel is to find the point where the crosstalk “just” becomes minimized and go no farther. Verify that the other channel is still better in that it has less crosstalk. If you NOW FIND that you have NOT gone more than a tiny bit off the neutral position to do this, you have probably hit the best azimuth.
If you find you are way off neutral, that is wrong, and something else is wrong with your setup.
* FOR ARMS that do not allow azimuth: One may cut two fine strips of business card, about 1.4 the width of the cartridge, and place them on top of one another, and then on top of the cartridge, running FRONT TO BACK to create a pivot or fulcrum. Then, by alternately slightly tightening and loosening each of the mounting screws a tiny bit each, one may “tilt” or rock the cartridge as viewed from the front to achieve a slight azimuth adjustment, which should be all that is required, to achieve top performance. When the proper point is found, tighten both screws by the same amount to “lock” the setting in place.
Firstly, let me explain a bit about VTA vs. SRA. This is a complex subject, one that is one of the most misunderstood aspects of cartridge design, manufacturing and alignment.
VTA is a term that describes the CANTILEVER tracking angle. Soundsmith uses cantilevers with VARIED designs of VTA. The universe of cartridges have historically been made with varied cantilever tracking angles over the many years, from as low as 15 degrees to as high as 30 or more. The angle of the cantilever is of little value, as it describes only the design of a particular cartridges use of a particular cantilever/stylus design. What is finally important is always the SRA, or Stylus Rake Angle. That must always be 2 degrees, raked back towards the direction of the incoming groove in the record – that matches the way most all records are made.
Soundsmith uses varied cantilevers, with varied VTA’s; these can change slightly from unit to unit as there is often variation in the mounting of the diamond as well as the faceting of the diamond. Many cartridge manufacturers do not take this into account carefully, and as a result, the resultant SRA can vary badly from unit to unit. Michael Fremer did an expose’ some time ago showing a very expensive NEW cartridge where the VTA was correct, but the SRA was not “just a bit off”, - in fact, it was not even close to being -2 degrees, but was PLUS 10 degrees. He posted a picture of it.
Recently the use of USB microscopes has brought a plethora of “experts” who believe they are viewing the SRA correctly. Often, they are fooled by the optics, an issue also complicated by the fact that by not realizing that by viewing the “shank” of the diamond they are not viewing the actual facet angle which traces the groove walls. This facet edge position VARIES from diamond to diamond within a single diamond stylus design as the shaft of the diamond is not always held perfectly in the tool that is used to hold it while the facets are being made. It can vary as much as +/- 4 degrees easily – WITHOUT the ability of being easily observed.
So, while folks believe that they obtaining correct SRA by viewing either the edge facet itself, the cantilever VTA or the diamond shaft, they can still be very far off. Knowing the VTA of a particular cantilever/diamond design is therefore of little value. Also of extreme importance is the fact that a STATIC view of SRA - versus how the cantilever moves UP when the record is playing, offers additional degrees of ERROR when using a USB microscope to determine proper SRA.
An interesting case is the diamond we use in many of our models, including the Sussurro. Many who view that diamond with optical aids are shocked to see that it is raked back by what appears to be as much as 20 degrees, and have questioned Soundsmith’s ability to mount a stylus.
This particular diamond we use in several of our designs has a “HIDDEN” facet at the bottom, thus returning the SRA to 2 degrees raked inward. A discussion of our stylus in this regard, and the explanation, can be found here:
The most important thing to know when setting up ANY cartridge is that if it lucky enough to have been made correctly, that when the cartridge is mounted, the tone arm should be parallel with the surface of the record. SRA adjustments up and down from there can be made, and there are many ways to do this by ear, with advice coming from many sources – sometimes with opposing views - all posted on the web.
Soundsmith cartridges differ from others in this respect; since we well recognize the many extreme variables in mounting, manufacturing and attaching diamonds and cantilevers – as well as the SUSPENSION differences from cartridge to cartridge in ALL types of cartridges, we make every effort to adjust each of our cartridges individually to the variable nature of the true SRA of each cantilever/stylus assembly.
Therefore, we assume that people who know about mounting and aligning cartridges know that one always starts with the tone arm parallel to the record, and adjusts up or down from there to listening preference.