Record Player Sounds Distorted

Published Categorized as Vinyl Troubleshooting

Few things are as disappointing for vinyl enthusiasts as a record player that produces distorted sound. Whether it’s muffled audio, unwanted crackles, or a warbling pitch, distortion can mar the listening experience and raise concerns about your setup. In this article, we explore the common causes of record player distortion and provide practical solutions to restore clear, high-quality sound. From checking the condition of your stylus and ensuring proper tracking force to examining your records for damage and cleaning them correctly, we cover everything you need to troubleshoot and fix distortion issues. Join us as we help you get your vinyl playback back to its crisp, vibrant best.

There are, however, perfectly reasonable explanations for why your record player sounds distorted; it is not just some mystical presence. A distorted record comes with the territory and is inherently unavoidable. Yet, there are ways to minimize the risk of your favorite discs throwing the needle off like some wild catlike beast.

Sometimes, the record eventually plays ball, but other times, the needle wants nothing more than to be rid of the disc for good. Here is how to get them to communicate and why they might not want to in the first place.

Table of Contents

The Disc Itself

The main reasons a record player sounds distorted can be found within the disc itself. It is more likely to be a fault of the disc than of the record player or turntable. The disc is simply more disposable, is designed in such a way that means it will not last as long. The materials that it is made from mean that it often attracts many elements that are detrimental to the fidelity of the recording being played, so imbued with static as it is.

Warps

What with the immense pressure on vinyl record factories and record plants these days as a result of this century’s vinyl boom, it is rare even to find a disc unmarred at least slightly by warping. I ordered and received a copy of Hex Enduction Hour by The Fall whose disc looked more like a potato chip than a vinyl record!

Most of the time these warped discs will sound fine on a good stereo system, able as the stylus is to judge these warps and peaks and troughs in real time (though this certainly is not good for the health of your turntable). Sometimes, however, these warps are insurmountable and/or your stylus is too tired or otherwise unable to keep up, thus the record player sounds distorted.

The needle is thrown all over the place, like a cowboy on a bronco, garbed in white shirt and bolo and waved ragged like a flag of surrender. This is very common these days for various reasons. These discs are very sensitive to temperature and climate, so they will warp like a flag if exposed to any warmer temperatures for prolonged periods of time. The same goes for the stacking of records on top of one another, sensitive as the disc is to any pressure or damage. Just stopping and thinking about the logical effects of your actions on your records will go a long way.

There are dedicated tools, such as record weights or record clamps which are designed in such a way as to apply enough pressure that the warps will be made more regular. This is more for the preservation of the stylus than anything else.

Dust

The reason a record player sounds distorted might be as simple as dust and debris lying in the grooves of the records. So constructed, it is all too common for the grooves of a record to become marred in this way. It is almost as though they are constructed this way on purpose…

It will thus be useful to give the record(s) in question a closer inspection with a magnifying glass. Sometimes, you might be able to see the dust with your own eye from a distance. It is so obvious. Other times, such an optical device will be required to inspect the dust when it is less obvious but still has an obvious sonic effect.

Nevertheless, it is rarely a bad idea to consistently clean your vinyl record discs. There are plenty of homebrew solutions that people encourage you to use, though you really can’t go wrong with a professional-grade vinyl record cleaning solution made specifically for the purpose.

Static

What can be mistaken by some as the sound of dirt and dust might actually be a significant build-up of static. This form of electricity has a habit of building up in these kinds of technologies, those that bridge the gap between the analog and the digital.

Just like dirt and dust that can find a home in the grooves of the record, static electricity can cause the very same pops and skips during playback. This is even more mystifying, as it is something that you can’t see corporeally. Unlike the dirt and dust commonly found in the grooves, however, this is a fairly easy issue to address and will almost certainly not cause any serious damage to the record in question.

There are several popular solutions, all of which involve purchasing a dedicated product for the purpose. There are such things as anti-static record sleeves that you might keep your records and sleeves in to prevent static electricity from building up of its own accord. This has a double effect of removing a considerable amount of the static electricity accrued during playback itself.

There are also acrylic platter mats, which in the realm of playback seek to reduce the amount of static electricity conducted through the turntable to the disc itself. The chemical composition of the acrylic simply puts a relative stop to the static build up.

There are other such tools which, instead of seeking to reduce build up, take it upon themselves to face the already built up static head on. The anti static carbon fiber brush, for example, is one such tool, designed to work simply by sweeping at a record, reducing static in a matter of seconds.

The Record Player

It is, sadly, also perfectly within the realms of possibility that the record player itself is at fault. It can just as easily fall prey to similar technical faults and issues if not carefully tended to. For all the wonders of vinyl record collecting, the audiophilia and the hobbyist aspects, there are so many inherent faults with the medium that it is no wonder technology moved on. It is outdated technology, pure and simple, but it is our outdated technology.

Calibration

Turntables come out of the factory with a number of specialised settings, and if your record player sounds distorted, it might just be that your turntable is not calibrated correctly. More specialised turntables will come with various settings for the stylus itself.

Tracking force, for example, is how people refer to the amount of force placed on the record by a stylus. If too low, skipping, and thus distortion, is likely to occur often. Likewise, if too high, more wear than usual can occur on the disc itself.

This tracking force can be set by adjusting the turntable’s counterweight to the manufacturer’s specifications for the stylus cartridge. The same can likewise be done with a specific turntable stylus scale to gauge the tracking force.

Similarly, the anti skating measures on a turntable work in the same sort of way, designed to prevent the stylus going on any unspecified excursions on the surface of the record. Thus, if your turntable has these settings, you will need to adjust them accordingly, either to the specifications of the manufacturer or via the information of an online resource.

Dirty Needle

Much as a disc itself can act as a harbinger of dirt, dust and grime, a stylus, too can do the same. We have all fallen prey to it and witnessed it. Very often several times throughout one disc we will have to lift up the stylus and give a little blow to the dust gathering on the needle and distorting the otherwise heavenly tones being displayed, where the record player sounds distorted.

This is, however, nothing to get too alarmed about, for there are very quick and easy solutions to this issue.

More professional solutions not only come with the literal solution needed to give the needle a new lease of life so as to be able to continue serving your whim and playing the records you love. The kit also comes with the specialised tools needs to approach this very delicate component with the care and delicate attention it deserves.

Vibrations

This reason why a record player sounds distorted is not exactly the record player’s fault, though some do fall prey to this more than others. It is all too easy for a turntable needle and/or stylus to be jogged and interrupted in their plastic peregrinations by external vibrations. Since these can come from a variety of different places and sources, it seems that the most logical thing to do would be to work out their source.

Are there vibrations coming from within the very room that the turntable is playing in? I can’t count the number of times someone in the same room as the record player in my house has moved too drastically or jumped and knocked the needle/stylus off kilter. These vibrations are more drastic examples, but the skipping can be caused by much more subtle vibrations, too.

Such as those transmitted through local walls and those connected to the turntable in question. If the turntable is sharing a wall with a laundry room or another such room, for example, then there is no doubt that it is going to get knocked off course every so often, nor any doubt what the cause is.

If any of these things are the case and you have not got the finances to utterly sanctify your audiophilic environment, then some other adjustments will be necessary so that it is not the case that the record player sounds distorted. Moving the turntable further away from the source of the vibrations works a treat.

If this is not possible, however, there are such devices as isolation platforms, which seek to set the turntable away from the vibrations that are perturbing it. They are so constructed with sound absorbing feet that absorb and mitigate the vibrations that would otherwise knock the stylus and have the record skip and/or distort.

Final Tones

So, there you have it! I hope this comprehensive guide through the various reasons your record player sounds distorted has been of some use to you in fixing up your setup. We will make an audiophile of you, yet!

FAQs Record Player Sounds Distorted

Why does my record player sound distorted?

This could be for any number of reasons, so the first port of call would be to work out whether the issue is with the record player itself, or simply with the disc that is playing. For the former, check the stylus for an over accumulation of dirt and dust, make sure that the settings are all properly calibrated and as they should be (based on the manufacturer’s specifications), ensure that the record player is not falling prey to external vibrations (no matter how subtle they might be), and, finally, do check whether the turntable is on an even surface (- this can have a profound effect on the sanctity of playback).

Why does my vinyl sound distorted?

To determine the cause of the issue, one should first ascertain if the problem lies with the record player itself or the disc playing. For the latter, check whether the grooves of the record have become marred with dirt or dust or other kinds of grime, then check and remove any static that might have accumulated since the last time it was rid of static, ensuring also that the disc is not scarred with any scratches that might significantly alter the playback enough that the record player sounds distorted, concluding with the physical disc itself and ensuring that it is not warped so much that it affects playback or the health of the stylus.

Why does my vinyl sound wavy?

A vinyl sounding wavy on playback could be for any number of reasons, though it specifically being wavy sounds to me as though it is to do with the warping of the record. If a record disc is warped, the stylus will be having to do a lot of work to keep up with the peaks and troughs in the disc. Not only can this wear out the stylus and its tracking over time, but, if the warps are drastic enough, can significantly distort the playback of the disc, making it sound, to your ears, ‘wavy’.

How do you fix the sound on a record player?

This is quite a technically specific question, and will largely depend on the various settings of your own record player. Thus, it would be an idea to search or inquire about the sound of the specific model of record player that you are seeking to work on. Some record players, for example, have settings with regards to tracking and calibration, which can be significant in making a record playback as intended, settings which other record players do not have.

By Robert Halvari

My name is Robert Halvari - audio engineer and a total audiophile. I love vinyl because it has that natural character which brings music to life. I've been using and testing vinyl record players for around 15 years and I'm sharing my love and knowledge of vinyl by publishing all I know at Notes On Vinyl

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