Pops, crackling sounds, and skipping can ruin the enjoyment of listening to your favorite vinyl records. A quality turntable can produce a warm, full sound that you cannot achieve with other forms of media. However, vinyl records are not the most durable way to capture sound. They are prone to deterioration and the accumulation of dust and debris.
When you play an old record, you may hear lots of crackling and popping sounds. This is an annoyingly common issue. Luckily, there are ways to prevent vinyl records from popping or skipping.
So how do you actually prevent vinyl popping from happening?
The first step would be to clean your records, for example with a carbon fiber brush or a velvet brush and cleaning solution. This removes dirt and buildup that keeps the stylus from properly tracking the grooves. You should also clean the stylus with a stylus brush to get rid of dust. If the popping continues, try adjusting the tracking force, the anti-skating feature, and the alignment of the cartridge.
Continued skipping or popping may indicate the need for a new cartridge, which is the most important part of the turntable. Low-quality cartridges tend to wear out quickly, leading to pops and skips.
Clean Your Vinyl Records and Turntable
Pops and skips are typically caused when the stylus cannot track the grooves on vinyl records. This often happens when dust and particles accumulate in the grooves, which is why records require occasional cleaning. We have actually written an in-depth guide on cleaning your records and turntables, here you can find the summery:
Use a cleaning brush specifically designed for vinyl records to safely remove the dirt and debris. There are two main types of brushes for record cleaning:
– Carbon fiber brushes
– Velvet brushes
Carbon fiber brushes help remove surface dust and eliminate static charges that may cause pops. They are useful for maintaining your records and keeping them dust-free. However, for deep cleaning, you may need a velvet brush.
Velvet brushes typically require the use of a cleaning solution, which offers a deeper clean compared to dry cleaning with a fiber brush. The cleaning liquid helps loosen debris and eliminate static charges. No matter the type of brush, move the brush in a circular motion while following the grooves of the record.
Some people also prefer to use a microfiber cloth and a record cleaning solution to remove static from old records. Spray the solution onto the cloth and wipe in a circular motion around the vinyl.
After cleaning your records, make sure that you store them properly. Buy new inner sleeves to replace worn sleeves or for records with missing sleeves. Getting outer sleeves provides additional protection while shielding the album cover.
Cleaning the turntable
If you continue to hear popping after cleaning your records, clean the turntable. The tracking needle (stylus) glides along the grooves of the record, picking up some of the dust and debris. As the debris builds up, the needle is more likely to skip.
Use a stylus brush to clean the stylus tip. Many audiophiles clean the stylus before or after each listening session. At the very least, you should inspect the stylus for dust buildup before playing a record.
A stylus brush comes with some record brushes. The brush typically has a long handle and soft bristles. Avoid brushing in a circular motion or from side to side as this may damage the stylus. To clean the stylus, brush the bristle across the tip of the stylus, moving from front to back in the same direction that the record spins.
Adjust Your Turntable
An old, worn record may create popping sounds even after cleaning the grooves and the stylus. Luckily, many turntables are equipped with various settings that you can adjust to improve playback performance. Check the following settings:
- Tracking Force
- Anti-skating Feature
- Cartridge Alignment
Many manufacturers balance the tonearm before shipping turntables to stores or customers. However, repeated use can cause the tonearm to become unbalanced, which increases or decreases the tracking force.
If the tracking force is too light, it is more likely to skip when the stylus needle encounters dust or debris along the grooves of the record. Applying too much force may damage the records and the stylus.
The process for adjusting the tracking force varies depending on the type of turntable. The most common method involves adjusting the counterweight at the back end of the tonearm by turning it.
Cartridges often come with a recommended tracking force, such as 2.0 grams or 1.8 grams. The first step is to adjust the counterweight until the tonearm balances in midair. After balancing the tonearm, adjust the counterweight to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
If the turntable includes an anti-skating feature, it should be set to the same value as the counterweight. For example, if you set the counterweight to 2.0 grams, you should also set the anti-skate feature to 2.0 grams. If you want to know more read our article on what exactly the anti skate feature is.
Any time that you move your turntable or accidentally knock the tonearm, you should rebalance it. Repeat the same steps to achieve the optimal tracking force.
After adjusting the tracking, you may need to align the cartridge. Some turntables come with a pre-mounted cartridge while others require alignment.
The stylus should extend beyond the center of the spindle when positioned directly above the spindle. The amount of the overhang varies depending on the cartridge. For example, some cartridges may require a 15mm overhang while others need a 16mm overhang. Manufacturers typically list the recommended overhang, which can be set using a rule or a special overhang gauge.
The cartridge also needs to be aligned with the tonearm so that the tip of the stylus properly follows the path of the grooves. To adjust the side-to-side alignment of the cartridge, loosen the mounting hardware and gently adjust the stylus cantilever.
Aligning the cartridge is often easier when using a two-point protractor. The protractor has dots that you can use to ensure that the cartridge is not positioned slightly to the left or right.
Replace or Upgrade Your Cartridge
Low-budget cartridges and worn stylus tips may also be the cause of the popping sounds that you hear. As the tip of the stylus wears and dulls, it has trouble tracking the grooves of the record. This causes pops, cracks, and skipping. It may also wear your records more quickly.
A cheap cartridge is likely to contain a cheap stylus, which may deteriorate faster compared to high-end needles. If the stylus is worn or you have a low-budget cartridge, consider upgrading your cartridge. We have actually written an article about how cheap cartridges and turntables can damage your records.
Replacing the stylus may cost close to what you would pay for a new cartridge, making it more economical to simply replace the cartridge.
Two of the main features to look for when choosing a cartridge include the type of cartridge and the type of stylus that it comes with.
Most cartridges contain a moving magnet (MM) or a moving coil (MC). MM cartridges have a cantilever that transfers vibrations from the stylus to the magnet. With an MC cartridge, the vibrations are carried through a coil to a fixed magnet, which reduces the pickup of unwanted vibrations. While MC cartridges provide superior sound, they also tend to cost more.
The next choice is between “nude diamond” and “tipped diamond” stylus tips. Nude diamond tips feature a diamond stylus that is fastened directly to the cantilever. Less expensive stylus tips typically feature a diamond tip secured to a metal shank, which reduces the quality of sound reproduction.
The shape of the stylus also impacts sound quality. The spherical stylus is the cheapest option but the rounded shape increases the risk of distortion. Elliptical stylus tips can reach deeper into the grooves, helping to capture a fuller sound. Read more about the stylus shape and its materials here.
As the elliptical tip reaches deeper, proper alignment becomes more important for preventing popping and skipping. Even a small adjustment can cause wear on the records and the stylus tip. If you choose to use the more expensive elliptical stylus tips, you may need to spend more time ensuring that your turntable is properly aligned.
With these tips, you should be able to minimize or eliminate any pops or cracks and finally enjoy the high-fidelity sound of vinyl.