Turntable Terminology

Because there is a lot to know about a turntable I have made a list of the more common parts. They are accompanied by a brief description and tips for adjustment or usage.


In general we can distinguish 3 different tone-arm models:

  • The S-shaped tone-arm
  • The J-shaped tone-arm
  • The straight tone-arm

The S or J-shaped can be found on most turntables and also needs the most adjusting when you want to scratch.

The great advantage of the straight tone-arm is that it hardly generates sideward forces which in turn makes your needle skip much less than e.g. a conventional S-shaped tone-arm. Disadvantage however is a loss of sound quality. Personally I must say that this can be hardly noticed.

The hereafter mentioned adjustments are mainly for S or J-shaped tone-arm turntables.

Anti-skate control

The small round dial next to your tone-arm is the Anti-skate control. In combination with your other adjustment possibilities you can adjust your turntable so the actual sound will be the best possible and your wear will be minimal. The Anti-skate together with the Balance-weight can help to do this. It is a bit of a technical story and in my opinion it is a bit far fetched to get into it any deeper. For we want to scratch and Hi-fi talk doesn’t apply to that.

To make a long story short:

  • Do you want to scratch? Turn your Anti-skate dial to zero
  • Are you going to listen and mix records? Turn your Anti-skate dial to the same digit as your Balance-weight

Tone-arm height ring

This is the big ring that is positioned under your tone-arm. By turning this (be sure to unlock the ring with the small lock-lever!) you can adjust the height of your tone-arm. Normally the product information that came with your needles tells you what height is best for those needles. E.g. with Shure M44-7 it’s best to have your tone-arm parallel to the platter.

There is equipment that actually measures the best height for your tone-arm with a specific needle. Mortals like me can’t afford those machines. A rule of thumb is to have your stylus as much parallel to the platter as possible (with Stanton AL needles this can be a small blue or white block). If you’re not entirely sure about the proper height for your tone-arm it is best to set it a bit lower rather than higher to avoid higher record-wear (this is because the height of your tone-arm affects the angle in which the needle lies in the record groove).

Note: even with cheaper turntables that don’t offer a way to change the tone-arm height you can sort of adjust the angle of the needle in the groove. You do this by carefully bending the small ‘block’ of the stylus until it’s parallel to the platter.

Before we continue I will explain some terms that are often used as if they were the same thing, but they are not!

  • Headshell = can be screwed into the tone-arm and has a grip that allows you to take hold of the tone-arm. Your cartridge gets attached to the headshell
  • Cartridge = the part that you screw under your headshell and were the stylus can be fitted
  • Stylus = the part that can be fitted in the cartridge and which physically houses the needle
  • The cartridge and stylus together are sometimes called the element

Note: Some cartridges screw into your tone-arm directly, thus making the headshell obsolete.


Some turntablist mount the cartridge in the headshell at an angle. Normally this is 23 degrees away from the spindle. You can do this by loosening the screws that hold your cartridge in the headshell and turning the cartridge outward, then fasten the screws back up again. This causes your needle to skip less, the outer groove wall will wear somewhat faster than the inner one. In effect you’re emulating a straight tone-arm by using this technique.


In general there are two different kinds of needles (styli):

  • Elliptical
  • Spherical

The name refers to the shape of the diamond tip that is used. Elliptical needles give better sound quality but will wear out your records quicker because the tracking force is spread out over a smaller surface. Since you would normally use a bit more tracking force when scratching it’s best to stick with the spherical needles.

Balance weight

On the back end of your tone-arm should be a weight, the Balance weight. Often this weight gets turned in all the way so you get maximum tracking force for your needle. However, it is a wrong assumption that more tracking force (more weight) means less needle skipping. Each cartridge and stylus has its own recommended stylus pressure setting. This can be for instance from 2.5 – 5.0 grams. This means that the needle can take this much tracking force and still function properly.

The Balance weight should have a small dial fitted on it which shows some numbers. This dial is not fastened so you can turn it around. So if it’s not fastened how can you know how much weight you’re applying to your tone-arm? To know this you have to calibrate your Balance weight. This is how you do it:

  • Make sure your Balance weight is fitted to your tone-arm and that your headshell, cartridge and stylus are also in place (you are able to play a record). Also remove the plastic stylus cover if your stylus has one.
  • Turn the Balance weight in the right direction (more or less weight) until your tone-arm floats freely (O in the picture). Be sure to not drop your tone-arm during this process because a damaged stylus is no good.
  • When it’s floating take hold of the arm carefully and dial the ring on the Balance weight to zero. The zero should be facing upwards.
  • Now you can turn the whole Balance weight inwards until the dial shows the desired pressure, 2,5 for instance. With some extra pressure your needle will skip less but keep the recommendations of the manufacturer in mind. You’ll find that a too high pressure setting will make the needle ‘dance’ when you scratch, causing it to skip more easily.

Tip: If you are in need of more weight you can try putting the Balance weight on backwards. This will give you a little more weight because the physical point of gravity lies in the back of the weight. You can’t calibrate correctly anymore when doing this. Mostly this is only necessary on some SL1200 models because they only allow you to put about 3,5 grams of weight in with the Balance weight (notice the link with 3,5 Anti-skate). Most other turntables allow you to easily utilize up to 7 grams of tracking force by using the Balance weight.

Shell weight

Most turntables come with extra Shell weight. Try not to use this unless really necessary (i.e. already turned Balance weight backwards). This extra weight (you can use a small coin as well) can be mounted on top of the headshell and van give you just that little extra tracking force that you were looking for. Keep in mind that you should add the weight of the Shell weight to the weight you already put in with the Balance weight!

At first I thought that it couldn’t hurt to use the Shell weight. However, after talking to some experienced people and technicians in this field I understand that any extra weight near your stylus is not wanted. In short: if you don’t need it, don’t use it!


The big disc that has a lot of dots (strobe-dots) on the side. The platter is basically placed on top of the motor and makes your records turn around. Of course a slipmat should be put between the platter and the record first.


The protruding pin in the middle of your turntable that is connected to the motor. When the platter is fitted the spindle sticks out of the middle.

Cueing lever

The small lever next to the tone-arm is the cueing lever. As a turntablist you never use this. It is imperative that you practice picking up your needle and placing it on the record (cueing) without ruining your needle or fucking up your records. During a scratch routine you have to be able to switch between records. To do this quickly, precise cueing is important.

Check the Tips ‘n’ tricks section for more info related to fast-cueing.

Dust cover

Turntablist never scratch with the Dust covers fitted. The things get in the way! Take of the hinges so you can easily take them off or put them back when you’re done scratching. You can use an old shirt or towel to cover your mixer.

Position of the turntables

Often you can recognize a turntablist by the position of his gear. Often you’ll see the turntables placed 90 degrees counterclockwise. This results in the tone-arm being placed at the back and gives you more space to work with your hands (especially nice when beat-juggling). Any vibrations resulting from your hand touching the vinyl are also situated further away from the needle. Another advantage is that your turntables are a bit closer to each other. The mixer is usually placed in between the two tables. However, some DJ’s like it better to put the tables next to each other and the mixer on the left or right.


Something that’s absolutely essential to be able to scratch is a slipmat. Most turntables come with a thick rubber mat. These are useless for turntablists. Get yourself 2 slipmats and place them on the platters. To get an ever better slip-effect you can cut up a piece of wax-paper, or even better, the plastic inside sleeve that comes with some records, and put it under your mats.

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