Play a few records with dynamic passages you know to be undamaged. If you hear distortion, it's probably an alignment (including VTF) issue. If not, welcome to the world of junk vinyl.
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Most likely those records are damaged due to excessive play or careless handling by the previous owner(s). I have a few like that. You can try playing them with a smaller stylus cart. Sometimes a smaller stylus can dig down to the undamaged part of the grooves. Other than that, there is not much you can do.
Is my tracking too light/heavy or is the LP damaged.
I'm sorry, but how do you expect anybody here to answer that? All anybody here can do is offer up posssible reasons.
In addition to the possibilities you listed it is possible that:
1. your cartridge mistracks because it simply can't handle those passages
2. the album was poorly recorded and the distortion is inherent in the disc
3. some other part of your system is overloading. How loud are you playing it?
To answer your original question; you will have to make adjustments and see if it clears up, that is unless the mistracking has damaged the record in which case it will never go away.
Herman, I guess I was expecting possible answers such as: "Distortion in dynamic passages is never a symptom of improper tracking." or "90% of the time distortion during passages is due to groove damage.", etc.
I was looking for general guidelines.
I'm not playing it very loud at all so I don't think it's a systemic issue. I agree that I'll have to eventually make adjustments to see what helps but, was hoping to get oriented into the areas to look first; those that are typically the culprit in exhibiting these symptoms.
How old is the vinyl? Much of stuff from the '60s and '70s is shot, because people were using "el-cheapo" record players with pizo-electric ceramic cartridges. Tracking at 5+ grams....VTF was adjusted by securing a penny, nickle, or dime above the cartridge :-) The highs were stripped right out of the grove...loss of treble and hiss.
By the '80's, better tables with MM cartridges were used by many more people, as mid-fi spread.
Fatparrot is entirely correct about much older vinyl, especially rock albums, but Sidssp has what discovered what I've also found to be a very plausible workaround. I recently upgraded from my used Shure V15/Denon 103R duo to a brand new Zyx Bloom. The Bloom is clearly riding in a different part of the groove, as surface noise has been greatly reduced on all my LPs. I also have a number of well loved albums damaged either by me in my youthful ignorance or someone else prior to their trip to the thrift store. The majority of these were unlistenable as system resolution has increased, and most are now completely enjoyable.
Of course, as Herman and Bill point out, your alignment needs to be correct before you can make any of these judgments. Gotta use a known good record for that.
In my own experience, many things that in my first few years of vinyl, I blamed on groove damage or vinyl inadequacies, turned out to be a result of my own cleaning or tuning inadequacies so I would look there first. I continue to be amazed at how durable vinyl is if reasonably cared for. I find that if a record is really trashed, it is trashed throughout - not just at the peaks. This is, of course, a gross generalization but that's what you asked for.
"Fatparrot is entirely correct about much older vinyl, especially rock albums..."
Hmmm, as it turns out, although out of character for me, that night I was listening to a few rock records I had just picked up second hand: Elvis Costello - 1977, Bee Gees - 1977, Boston - 1976, Billy Joel - 1978.
This Friday, I'll pull out some brand new stuff to make sure my system is still setup properly.
Many vinyl pressings have distortions due to cutting head overload or bad vinyl formula... for example, a record with loud passage distortions may not have that problem on the same title pressed in a different country... an import from England, Germany, Japan or Holland all sound just a little different and may sound better than a u.s. pressing with the distortion.
Here's a foolproof test to determine whether any particular stretch of groove is damaged, flawed or dirty - or not:
1. With the system powered up but the TT motor off, cue the stylus down just before one of the offending passages.
2. Move the platter slowly (always forward!) by hand. The music will make a low frequency growl.
3. If the vinyl has pressing flaws, was damaged by prior abuse or is grundged up with dirt you'll hear it very clearly.
At this slow speed no stylus will mistrack, so if you hear non-musical artifacts you'll know it's something on the record.
I'm guessing I haven't run across too many of YOUR old LPs in the thrift stores... :-)
I tried your slow rotation test on a record that certainly sounds pretty damaged at 33 rpm, and then again on a known clean and undamaged disc, but the "non-musical artifacts" weren't really obvious to me on the damaged record. Can you describe in more detail what you hear using this method?
The slow rotation test is excellent for detecting pressing voids and sporadic vinyl damage at dynamic peaks due to mistracking cartridges. Those produce sharper-edged shapes in the vinyl than any musical waveform, they're faster than the fastest transient cut by a cutting head. Even at slow rpm's, where musical information all sounds fairly low pitched, flaws and damage like that sound sharp and crisp.
I haven't tried it on a record with general background noise or grunge, so I'm not sure how that would sound. Probably results would vary depending on the shape of the grunge?