While vinyl albums boast some of the most beautiful artwork, the real jewel resides within the album sleeve. But the prize inside will stay out of reach if you do not know how to work a record player. The fact is, playing records requires a little more work than pressing a button on a boombox, or clicking an icon on your iTunes.
How do Record Players Work?
First thing first, let’s get the vinyl vocabulary down, so you understand what parts we are referring to. A record player is a device that replays and records sound. With this dual action in mind, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Since then, the fundamentals of audio engineering have not changed a whole lot.
How Does Audio Replay Work?
The idea was to capture the sound waves that make up an audible experience. Edison understood that sound was, at its core, a pattern of pressure progressing through the elements, primarily air. Edison intended to give a solid form to the vibrations that we interpret as music, noise, or neutral ambient tones.
He was not the only person interested in recording sound. Two French inventors had made forays in the field before him. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had successfully printed sound waves onto glass, while the poet Charles Cros had submitted to the French Academy of Sciences a detailed description of the Paleophone, a device that was designed in the same way that Edison was credited with later.
What is a Needle?
Every sound is a series of waves that dip and rise, concentrating higher pressure, known as compressions, or lower pressure, referred to as rarefactions. Edison set up a device that was sensitive enough to move in time with these peaks and valleys of sound. He used an actual needle that carved squiggles, or grooves, into a rotating, tinfoil cylinder.
What is the Stylus?
In modern record players, the stylus, often called the needle, is the hardened tip of the metallic arm, or tonearm, that you gently place on records. The needle reads the grooves that transcribe the vibrations of the initial audio recording.
What is the Cartridge?
The needle guides the tonearm, which houses the cartridge. Traveling through the metallic arm, the vibrations turn into electrical signals in this cartridge, where they come into contact with a magnetic coil.
What is an Amplifier?
The electrical signals are fed to wires that connect to an amplifier. Speakers turn the signals back into sound. The challenge is thus to amplify the weak, electrical signal so human ears can hear it. Hence the iconic, flaring horn that Nipper the dog was famously portrayed listening to in the painting that became a logo for legendary record player manufacturers like the Victor Talking Machine Company, now Victrola.
Sound equipment basically copies how the brain interprets sound. Hearing is our ears picking up on the changes in the air pressure around us. The vibrations are transformed into electrical signals that the brain can work with.
Preamp vs. Amp
While the parts practically share a name, they are separate entities and fulfill different roles in the chain of signals. A preamp increases the signal to line level or AUX. An amplifier, on the other hand, takes this line level and boosts it, allowing the speakers to play it.
Today, preamps are built into record players. Technically speaking, a phono preamp converts the signal back to its original recording format. It does this by applying the RIAA equalization curve, or EQ.
What Does the EQ Do?
Without the EQ, the quality of the sound emitted from your record player would be terrible. You would mostly hear:
- Surface Noise
As if that was not enough, the playing time would be a fraction of what it could be. Remember the record etchings we mentioned? Well, bass frequencies do not leave much space for higher pitches on the record. Their long wavelengths would take up most of the groove if it were not for the EQ. It is no wonder that the Record Industry Association of America decided to standardize the process.
Before then, each record label had its own EQ. Machines and records did not always match, resulting in an inconsistent audio replay, which sometimes hardly counted as a replay at all.
What are Speakers?
Amplifiers, also called “amps” or “power amps,” do not look like horns anymore, so do not panic if you have brought home your new record player and there is no horn in sight. Speakers will look different, depending on what you have purchased. If you have a simple turntable, you will need to buy additional parts. But a record player will combine all the equipment you need, namely:
- A turntable
- A needle, or stylus
- A tonearm that houses a cartridge
- An amplifier
All you have to do with a record player is plug in the power and make sure to replace the needle if it wears down. To do that, you will want to unplug the machine.
What is a Turn Table?
If you recall, Edison’s phonograph operated around a cylindrical base. You may have noticed that modern record players do not display this engineering. The turntable is credited to another inventor—not French but German, this time, although he was living in the United States. Emile Berliner traded out Edison’s cylindrical chassis for a flat, rotating table that came to be known as—that’s right—the turntable. The Berliner gramophones were matched with rubber records, the ancestors of vinyl.
What is Vinyl?
When you hear the term, people are usually talking about records. But vinyl is, in fact, a kind of plastic by the name of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. When steamed, PVC softens, which is exactly what record manufacturers do when they make a disc.
To “cut” a record is to make one. The word is a reference to the needle carving into the lacquer. A master copy is made first by coating the lacquer in metal. Like a photo has a negative, a record has a ridged stamper used to mass produce. The steamed vinyl is placed between the metal plates and stamped. The vinyl then hardens once cooled with water, giving you the record that will be sold and treasured.
Step by Step: How to Work Record Player
Now that you are familiar with the moving parts, you can set up your record player with an understanding of the general function of audio replay equipment. Playing a record is an experience. Unlike CDs or iPhones that play music at the click of a button, record players take a little more work from the listener.
Each record player model is different. That is the appeal, after all: uniqueness of sound, the uniqueness of the experience. Some machines may have an automatic tonearm moved by an anti-skating feature that brings the needle to the center of the groove. Others will have no such helping hand, and it is up to you to steady your own arm to move the metallic one.
Find a Flat Surface
There is a reason Berliner's invention was qualified as a table. It may turn, but like all tables, it must be flat to function. If you place your record player on a surface that is not flat, it will not work. You also risk damaging your records.
Read the Manual
The owner’s manual will explain how to start and stop your machine. It will also reveal the model-specific locations of:
- The cueing lever that controls the tonearm
- The counter-weight at the base of the metallic tonearm
- The record size adaptor that you can manipulate to match the disc’s dimensions (12 or 7 inches).
- The speed gage that you will want to adjust depending on the revolutions per minute (RPM) on your record
Every machine has a corresponding tracking weight that is disclosed in the aforementioned manual. You will need to adjust the counterweight on the tonearm to set the tracking weight before plugging in the record player.
Place the Record on the Turn Table
To take the record out of its sleeve, open your palm and let the disc slide out. Put your finger in the hole in the middle of the disc. Try not to touch the record. If you have to, hold the sides between your palms as though they were the parallel legs of the letter H.
Make Sure the Speed is Correct
Before you place the record on the turntable, make sure the speed matches the record’s needs. The middle of the disc will have an inscription detailing the speed needed.
- 12-inch records play at 33 1/3RPM or 45 RPM
- 7-inch records play at 45 RPM
Make Sure the Disc is Clean
The sound will be affected if it is soiled with fingerprints, dust, or dirt. Abnormal playback can include, but is not limited to:
- Warbled vocals
- Muffled treble
The last symptom listed above is the worst. If the machine is emitting no sound, you may be damaging your records. It could mean that the needle is worn down or clogged with collected dust. It may need replacing.
Another bad sign is if the needle is skipping or bouncing along the record.
Once the speed is correct, you can press play. The cueing lever will rise and hover over to the spinning record. If your table is manual, you must press on the tonearm’s cueing lever.
Align the tonearm with the record's outer rim, so the needle meets the first groove. Gently lead it down to meet the record. Music should play.
To stop it, pull the cueing lever up to lift the tonearm off the record. Guide the tone arm back to its resting spot. Only then should you press the “stop” button.
Connecting to Your Computer
Nothing could be easier if your record player boasts a USB output. All you have to do is plug it into your computer. Know that a USB output also means that your record player has a built-in preamp.
If you do not have a built-in preamp, you will need cables to connect your turntable using the inputs labeled PHONO. Preamps come in different forms. Common ones are:
- External, standalone preamps
If you do not have a USB output, you will need to an adaptor to connect to the computer’s headphone or audio input.
Know Your Machine
Record players are back, like a phoenix from the fire. It takes a minute to get the hang of it, but do not despair. Record players are easier to work than you may think. You just have to get one in front of you. Back in the day, nearly all of society used record players on a daily basis. If they could do it, so can you. Browse our wide selection of record players today!
Encyclopedia Britannica. “Sound (physics)” retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/sound-physics
Musicaroo. “Preamplifier vs. Amplifier: What’s the Difference and Do I Need Both?” retrieved from https://musicaroo.com/preamplifier-vs-amplifier/
Wikipedia. “Nipper” retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nipper