Tracking Troubles--Upgrade or Setup?

Lately I've been bothered by what I think is poor tracking in my low-budget vinyl setup, and I'm concerned that I'm doing damage to my records. The problem is distortion at dynamic peaks. There was a thread on this a while ago, to which I contributed, because a lot of my used vinyl seems to be just plain worn and distorts at peaks because of (I presume) years of playing on somebody else's setup. My copy of Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue is particularly bad, and it kills me!

What I've noticed lately is that I'm getting faint distortion on new records, again at the peaks, and particularly as the cartridge tracks closer to the center. Really, I think this problem has always been there but I've listened past it--blessing and a curse, I'm listening more closely now.

My setup is a Technics SL-D2 with a Shure M97xE into a Cambridge 540P. The Shure's known for tracking well, has a new stylus, and I have paid a lot of attention to setup (level, protractor, tracking force gauge, test record), but I'm also a relative vinyl newbie and have had to learn all of it on my own--possibly something's off, and I don't know it. I want to enjoy my records for a long time, particularly those I'm shelling out new-vinyl prices for. Should I: setup from scratch; look into a new table/arm (used Rega P3 or Technics 1200); look into a new cartridge? How big a factor is the table/arm in tracking? Thanks in advance for all help.
The table is not a huge factor in tracking. Arm and cartridge are both critical, as are setup, stylus cleaning and LP cleaning. You've done the setup, but are your stylus and vinyl cleaning up to par?

Of course we haven't actually established that you're hearing physical mistracking, though you certainly could be.

One equally likely alternative is phono stage overload and distortion. This can and does sound EXACTLY like mistracking in all but the highest resolution systems. Try borrowing another phono stage. If the "mistracking" goes away, you'll have identified the true culprit.

Another possibility is pre-damaged vinyl, and even new vinyl is not immune from suspicion. I recently helped a fellow 'phile who also thought his rig (much costlier than yours) was mistracking. Turns out the brand new LP's he was having trouble with were just flawed vinyl. No rig in the world would have played them without extraneous noise.

Before launching into new components which may or may not help, why not listen to some suspect LP's on other people's rigs? Bring your phono stage along and see if that performs okay with another rig. Borrow a friend's phono stage and try it in your sytem. Do a little more investigation before spraying money around.
Excellent advice from Dougdeacon.
Thanks, Dougdeacon. Looks like I have a few things to try--and I appreciate it. I had wondered if I was hearing clipping, but I hadn't considered that the new LPs might be flawed. It'll be a relief if I don't have to throw money at the problem, or not much. Thanks again--and any other input still welcome.
It could indeed be clipping. I've heard it with quite a few phono stages and I know Rushton has too.

Just as with a power amp or any amp, dynamic peaks cause phono stage problems if the power supplies can't provide enough instantaneous current to meet peak demand. What happens then is that the musical signal starts modulating the incoming power, which results in distorted waveforms until the music settles down and the power supplies can catch up again.

It gets worse on inner grooves because their shorter wavelengths are more difficult for a stylus to track cleanly and also because tracking angle error is increasing. The separate but very closely related waveforms that result can be difficult for a phono stage to keep separate and reproduce cleanly. Once it starts smearing slightly separate sounds into one, the sonics go into "fingernails on chalkboard" mode pretty quickly. ;-)

Here's a simple test for vinyl damage: "play" the suspect passage by rotating your platter BY HAND at very slow rpm, like 4-5rpm or so. The music should sound like a murky, LF growl. If there's any damage in the grooves it will usually sound like sharper, quicker clicks, much crisper and higher in frequency than the music. If you hear that and cleaning doesn't remove it, the LP's damaged.
Doug's helped me alot, and Doug usually has all the bases covered, but sometimes everybody cannot "guess" what the malady is?

I can only say to hold everything suspect. The Shure, while known to be a good bang for the dollar Cartridge could be at fault? Possibly you "might" think you're at the prescribed VTF-VTA settings but might be off?

I've read a few reports where the Shure was flawed, not made right, cockeyed Stylus, etc. These south of the border Cartridges might not be made with the same precision that Shure was known for many moons ago.

With a MM Cartridge, you should be probably looking at maximum 40db gain with the Cambridge. And of course,the default 47K ohms Loading.

As well, where is your analog system placed? Hopefully you're not blasting at wake the dead levels with the Turntable inches away from speakers. Isolation is paramount with ANY analog system. It certainly is no good having a $10K Turntable, admist a rotten base-stand, poor flooring, poor isolation.

I'd check everything, Go through all systematically, to nail down the fubar. Hope this helps. Mark
I've been waiting to follow-up here till I have some time later in the week to check things out in detail, so more leads are much appreciated. Isolation wise, the table's on a side wall well away from the speakers, resting on a DIY platform; listening levels are moderate and I hear the same thing on headphones, so it can't be room interaction. I am going to double check my cartridge setup, though--this is my second stylus on the Shure, and both have been crooked, so I've lined up the cantilever, not the cartridge body: doesn't build confidence, though! Doug, your low RPM test is a great one, and I'll definitely run that with some of the suspects. Any other input appreciated!

Ablang -- Any updates? I experience the same thing at times, and I'd be very interested to hear how you resolve the problem.

I experience exactly the same thing, and have (by process of elimination) come tome the conclusion that occasional mistracking definitely occurs. Often, when I simply lift the arm and put it back it helps. I don't want to go any heavier if I can avoid it, and since this is very sporadic, I live with it with no harm to the LPs.

Thanks to Doug's advice this seems more clear. However I have a question for Doug: should I try a little more tracking weight? I have a Rega rb300 arm, admittedly not a high end arm, but gets the job done on my Linn LP12. Thus I prefer less weight/force if I can get away with it. What do you think?

When "mistracking noises" ("MN's") are heard then actual mistracking, vinyl damage and phono stage clipping are all possible culprits. The next step is to diagnose.

If MN's occur on multiple LP's, both old and new, we can probably eliminate vinyl damage.

Next question, are the MN's in one channel or both?

If the MN's are all (or nearly all) in one channel, you probably have mistracking. Try tweaking antiskating. Increase AS to eliminate R channel MN's, reduce AS to eliminate L channel MN's. If this doesn't affect the MN's, keep reading...

If the MN's occur about equally in both channels or if AS adjustment has no effect, try increasing VTF in .1g increments (until you reach the maximum VTF for your cartridge). If this materially reduces/eliminates the MN's you've found your (a) culprit. Try playing your rig just barely above the VTF needed to prevent MN's. Many cartridges perform very well at that point, which balances the downforce needed to prevent vinyl damage against freedom from unnecessary or excessive cantilever damping.

If none of the above eliminates the MN's, try a different (better) phono stage. Inexpensive phono stages often clip high amplitude signals at certain problematic (to them) frequencies. This can sound so close to mistracking that even expert ears can't tell the difference.

There's also the slow play test to be doubly sure you're not hearing damaged vinyl. "Play" a suspect passage by spinning the platter by hand at VERY SLOWWWWWWWWWW RPM's. The music should sound like a low frequency growl. Any vinyl damage will be much quicker and higher in pitch, very noticeably different from the music. If you hear that the record is to blame and there's no cure. New vinyl can have flaws that this test will reveal, as can old, damaged vinyl.

Oh, you wanted the short answer? Yes, try more VTF! Why not?

Doug: Yes, it does certainly favor one channel alright, you got it. It occurs on some LPs but not consistently. A given LP might do it now and then, not always. Definitely not LP damage I think.

Here you will have to excuse my ignorance on this matter. I have a Rega RB300 arm which (to my knowledge) has only tracking weight adjustment and no VTF or AS fine adjustment. I am already at the maximum for my cartridge for tracking. I have heard that Rega doesn't honor anti-skating for some spurious ideological reason.

I guess increasing tracking might help. You suggest going over the recommended level a bit?

A sporadic problem like this points to the need for a holistic approach, first ruling out something further down the chain, like a driver or preamp tube, oxidized RCA connector or bad voice coil. If everything is fine with line-level/CD playback (meaning no noticeable distortions or problems), then move on to the LP chain.

Doug's responses regarding phono chain diagnosis are spot on. My only comment would be that if one uses a cartridge with a somewhat exotic stylus profile, (like the Dorian), alignment becomes extremely crucial. Check, double check and check again. Remember, not all protractors are created equal, and you may have difficulties trying to implement a Baerwald alignment on a Rega, which favors a Stephenson alignment. Also, since you're using an LP12, I would recheck your arm cable dressing through the P-clip. Any hang or drag on the arm cable will cause grief, and can certainly result in the type of distortions you are hearing. The Linn can be funny that way...while you're at it, double check suspension set-up and make sure the platter is level.

"Not all protractors are created equal, and you may have difficulties trying to implement a Baerwald alignment on a Rega, which favors a Stephenson alignment. Also, since you're using an LP12, I would recheck your arm cable dressing through the P-clip. Any hang or drag on the arm cable will cause grief"

Thank you sir, but I really cannot understand what you have said. Thus the need to pay a professional.
G'day, interesting one. More and more I'm coming to the opinion that poor overhang set-up is the main reason for all manner of perceived vinyl playback issues. It took me years (about 20?!), to properly work out the intricacies of the Baerwald two point gauge, so I'm not surprised if people 'get it wrong', as I did too!

This reference is excellent, in particular getting the cartridge properly centred at each null point. Regards,fscerri.

First, let's learn some jargon so we can confuse each other in the same language.

"VTF" = Vertical Tracking Force, sometimes referred to as just "tracking force" or "downforce". It's what you meant by "tracking weight" (though scientists/engineers would correct your use of the word "weight", since that's technically inaccurate).

Whoever told you Rega doesn't "honor" antiskating is clueless. Every Rega tonearm includes an antiskating adjustment. Your Rega manual, using British terminology, calls it a "bias" or "anti-bias" adjustment but it's the same thing. On an RB-300 it's adjusted by sliding a small button along a slot in an extension of the arm base (beneath the arm tube when the tube's in the arm rest). Toward the base increases antiskate, away from the arm base reduces it. Try various settings, from none to maximum.

Palasr added some valuable tips, but since much of this is new you do need to build a knowledge base or pay someone to do it for you. Most on this (and other) forums prefer/enjoy doing it themselves, and certainly that is the path to maximize performance. Vinyl playback is not plug and play, as you see. Neither is it set and forget. The perfomance of cartridges (especially) changes over time, with the weather, etc. If you rely on someone else to set up you're at the mercy of their schedule, not to mention their prices.

You can learn all this by reading and doing. There are many good sources online, including the FAQ's at Vinyl Asylum, Vinyl Engine, searching this board, etc. For an organized presentation in one place, consider Michael Fremer's DVD on vinyl setup, available from many online retailers. Well worth the time and investment if hours of online reading isn't your thing.
I feel the need to chime in here.

I recently have been pained by two cartridges and the whole time I thought it was my Thorens 145mkii.

The same cart you are using was giving me headaches for weeks. The M97xe had great reviews and was cheap so I purchased it. The first 2 songs always played great. But once it hit those inner grooves, it turned distorted and nasty real quick.
I did everything short of a new tonearm. {Until yesterday I was looking around for a new arm!}
Different protractors, different VTA, anti-skate this anti-skate that! But nothing worked. Still the same results.
So I get upset and put on my Grado Black. A smile on my face. It sounds great! Until.......the 3rd song in on Coldplay's "Rush of Blood..." and whammo. Same thing! So now I am thinking its the turntable. Somethings wrong.

I have read countless pages on tweeking and setting up turntable. Done tons of different setups to my Thorens, I am sure its getting pissy at me! And then yesterday came.

I was so upset I couldn't listen to a whole side of an album I did something I never thought I would do.

When I purchased the Thorens the guy gave me 3 carts. All Audio-Technica older carts. I did minor research on them and they were still selling for $30. So in my head these were know way going to beat out the Shure and the Grado. But I was at a crossroads. New arm or plunk down for an expensive cart, in my head thats what was wrong.

I put on the Audio-Technica At90e. To my smiling face it played all the way through. Not one side but the whole album! The whole thing. I kept waiting and waiting for some distortion. Nope. Music is all I heard. I freakin' flipped.

I tried 180 gram albums, I tried old 1960 Sinatra albums, I tried old punk albums....they all played. And sounded great too! I read all the reviews on the AT carts {none on this particular cart} and they all say great things about the tracking. I'm a believer. Audio-Technica has a new life member.

This is not to say that this will sove your problems, but at $30 give it a shot.

I dont know if these are bad carts {shure and grado} or if this is what is meant by the cart is not right for this arm {TP63 wand and TP 16II arm.}

But I am really happy I found something that works.

If your still reading my ramble...thanks!

Well, that's interesting. I have M97xE's fitted to all my three turntables and I have never heard any inner groove distortion at all. I know for a fact that the M97xE is sensitive to correct overhang adjustment, so perhaps there lies the reason.

Some cartridges are relatively insensitive to correct overhang and others not. How are you setting yours? There are many different opinions on the best way to set overhang. At the very least it is a fiddly process, I concede that much! I use the Baerwald two point gauges and using them properly is a lot more difficult than one might think. It took me a long time to work it out! Regards, Fap.