Before there were MP3s, CDs, and cassette tapes — heck, even before eight-track tapes — there was the record player. Although today, unless we have an affinity for vinyl, we think of record players as “old-school”, often forgetting they revolutionized music and the music industry as much as MP3s have today. Record players allowed for listening to music at home for the first time; before the record player, it was live or nothing. It made such an impression, we still call music releases “records” and “albums,” and the spinning album phrase “getting rotation” still means a song is heard on the radio.
Once record players came onto the scene in 1877, they didn’t leave until almost a century later — although they never fully left. Nostalgia as well as preference for the sound quality has kept vinyl alive, and DJs and hip hop artists still use turntables as part of their music-making. We celebrate the beauty of albums with our recent collaboration with Classic Album Sundays – monthly active listening sessions of entire albums in a studio setting with the best equipment available. It’s a truly unique experience.
So how does a record player work? What are the different components, and how do they work together to produce sound? Let’s take a closer look at this amazing game-changing contraption.
Although “turntable” and “record player” today are used almost synonymously, a turntable is technically the part of the record player where the record sits. Sometimes the turntable is also called the “revolving platter.”
The center of the turntable includes a metal rod, holding the record in the center as it turns. The plate of the turntable itself is generally metal, typically covered with plastic or rubber so the record isn’t inadvertently scratched.
The least expensive record players use steel for the turntable. The steel plates used in record players are light and cheap to produce, however, the consequence is that these plates have a low inertia, meaning any instability with the motor speed are quite pronounced.
A more expensive turntable plate is aluminum. Aluminum plates have better balance, reduce vibration, and don’t accentuate motor speed instabilities.
The turntable’s rotation is controlled by the turntable drive system. The two main types of drive systems are the belt-drive system and the direct-drive system. The belt-drive system goes a long way in reducing noise heard from the motor, because the elastometric belt helps to absorb vibrations and other low-frequency sounds. A direct-drive system, by contrast, doesn’t use intermediary gears, wheels, and belts. The advantage of a direct-drive system is later models had stronger motors and pitch control sliders. For this reason, direct-drive turntables were favored by disc jockeys for decades.
The stylus is the needle that rests against the record. Ideally, a stylus is a cone-shaped component made from diamond, which is the hardest natural material on Earth. Besides diamonds, sapphires are also commonly used for record needles. The stylus is connected to the tone arm by a flexible strip of metal. The flexibility in the middle allows for the stylus to ride up and down within the record grooves.
The stylus can be either spherical or elliptical. Elliptical styli have the advantage of increasing the fidelity of the music by allowing for more contact with the record groove. A spherical stylus provides less fidelity but is more sensitive.
Even a diamond-tipped stylus will need to be replaced after a while. Experts recommend changing the stylus after every 1,000 to 2,500 hours of listening pleasure.
The Tone Arm and the Cartridge
The tone arm is the arm of the record player that holds the stylus and, together with the cartridge, it is responsible for actually producing the sounds. Tone arms can be straight or curved. Which one is better? It depends who you ask. Some people insist curved tone arms produce better sound, but DJs and hip hop artists usually prefer straight arms because they’re easier to scratch with.
As the stylus follows the grooves of the record, vibrations travel through the metal wires inside the tone arm and arrive at the cartridge at the tone arm’s end. The cartridge contains coils within a magnetic field, and when the vibrations hit these coils, they are transformed into electrical signals. These electrical signals can be amplified and broadcasted through the speakers.
Amplifiers and Preamplifiers
Today, most audio receivers are designed for the signals that come out of a CD, DVD, or MP3 player. That means that they are not well-equipped to play the audio signal coming out of a traditional record player. Older audio receivers included what was called a phono preamplifier (also known as a preamp or phono stage) to boost record player signals to appropriate levels, but modern receivers lack phono preamps. Some record players include built-in preamps to solve this problem; talk to a true audiophile, however, and they will insist that you get a dedicated preamplifier for the best sound quality.
The right preamp depends upon the cartridge. Modern cartridges will play well with preamps at the 100pf to 150pf level; older cartridges, such as those from the 1980s, work better with preamps of the 200pf level. It should be noted, though, that if your cartridge hasn’t been changed since the 1980s, you should go ahead and replace it anyway!
In short, the vinyl record is placed upon the revolving platter. As the record revolves, the stylus bumps up and down within the groove, sending its vibrations along metal wires within the tone arm and into the cartridge. The cartridge converts these vibrations into an electrical current using a magnetic field. This current is sent into the preamp, which boosts the signal on its way to the speaker. When the amplified current hits the speaker — presto! — we hear music or whatever is recorded onto the vinyl.
We hope you enjoyed this short tour of the anatomy of a record player. Did we leave out anything crucially important? Do you still listen to vinyl? Let us know in the comments section below.