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System Setup and Balance

Galibier Design - Sky DancerA few days ago, I wrote about musicans’ risk taking and how we make similar decisions when configuring and setting up our hi-fi systems.

In this post I’d like to comment on some misunderstood setup parameters, and in the next one, I’ll cover system configuration.

As I wrote earlier, I’m all about dynamics, tone color, musical pacing and rhythmic “intelligibility”.

Of course, when we focus on individual attributes, there’s always the risk losing site of the whole picture.   I’ve found that the above 4 attributes however, serve as a good measuring stick for a system that’s faithful to music.

Balance …

Galibier Design - Climbing PhotoAll too frequently I have an awareness that a “big picture perspective” lost in the design of systems with high aspirations.  Designers frequently paint themselves into a corner as they chase a particular element at the expense of a fundamentally balanced design.

Remember PRaT and a certain Scottish turntable purported to excel at this?  These turntables had an upper midrange emphasis which highlighted leading edge transients. 

While they did a fairly good job of unraveling rhythms, their tonal imbalance eventually grew fatiguing to many listeners.

Let’s assume for this discussion that we’re talking about a well-balanced system which we’re trying to “nudge” forward – from very good to inspirational.

On a Knife Edge …

Galibier Design - Balancing ActTuning your analog rig is a balancing act, especially when we’re trying to unlock dynamic shadings (both subtle and dramatic) – those elements of playback that clue you in to a musician’s mastery of their instrument, whether it be a guitarist’s vibrato technique, a violinist’s bowing approach, or the expressiveness in a singer’s voice.

Two key parameters in tuning your turntable’s dynamics are tracking force and anti-skate. 

Just Enough, but No More …

With both tracking force and anti-skate, you’ll find (in general) that setting them on the high side of their recommended range will result in the perception that your turntable is running slowly, even when it’s spinning at the correct speed.  This blurring of the transient attack (over damping the cantilever/suspension) is responsible for this perception.

Tracking Force …

So, my recommendation is to start on the low end of the recommended tracking force range and work your way up in .05g increments.  Realize that as you increase tracking force, you’re subtly reducing the SRA.  Take your time with this and take it into account.

In my experience, the lower half of a manufacturer’s range tends to work the best, but work your way through the entire range, or at least to the point where you notice a drop-off in performance.  Your arm/cartridge combination may be the exception to this rule, so work through the range if you have any doubts. 

When you’re tracking too low, you may experience mis-tracking, and obviously, we want to eliminate that.  At the same time, you may find that mitigating mis-tracking passages on your most “challenging” records ( 2% of your collection) compromises the remaining 98% of your collection. 

It’s a judgement call only you can make.

Anti-skate …

Start with no anti-skate, and as with tracking force, work your way up in small increments. 

Anti-skate is a parameter for which there is no universal setting.  Skating forces are a result of a pivoting arm’s geometry (overhang and offset angle) as well as the friction (drag) on the stylus as it traces the groove. 

Since the drag component is a function of groove dynamics (different records) along with stylus profile and polishing, what’s “perfect” for one record may be “wrong” for another.

Again, only you can decide what’s right, but my general rule of thumb (as with tracking force) is to not optimize for your most challenging records at the expense of the other 98%.

Mass Tuning …

If your tonearm has multiple counterweights (e.g. Kuzma, Tri-Planar, Mörch, etc.), experiment with different combinations.  While different combinations may only shift the resonant frequency by a fraction of a Hz, they can frequently have a dramatic effect on the transient response.

The Big Picture …

As you work through this, step back and watch the big picture.  Don’t give up the “whole” to optimize a small element.

False cues …

In the next installment, I’ll begin to discuss false positives – how system configuration can fool you into thinking your setup is flawed.

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