Have you ever looked at a record player with a complete loss of words and felt silly trying to describe the spinning part of the rod with a pin on end?
We’ve all been there, and thankfully, the different parts of a record player are rather simple once explained with the correct terms.
Essentially, a record sits on the platter, which the drive system rotates. Vibrations are captured when the needle runs along the grooves of the record.
These vibrations are read through the stylus and cartridge as a phono signal attached to the tonearm. Music is played when the phono signal is converted to a line signal through a preamp and then amplified.
Of course, this is just scratching the surface of all the components that make up a turntable. For the purpose of keeping things simple, we’ll be dealing mostly with turntable components, not the rest of the electronics that transform a turntable into a record player.
If you’re still unsure about the differences we’re referring to, check out Turntable Vs Record Player – Key Differences Explained.
So, if you want to understand the full anatomy of a turntable, buckle up, grab a fresh cup of Joe, and continue reading.
Record Player Part Explained & With Images
Starting from the very bottom, we have the isolation feet. These feet hold up the record player so that it isn’t in full contact with the surface it lives on. As humans, we may associate feet with enabling movement, but quite on the contrary, the purpose of these isolation feet is to reduce movement.
Since a record player functions by picking up vibrations through the stylus, we want to do our best to isolate the vibrations we want to detect. The more we can reduce the external vibrations picked up by our record player, the cleaner the sound we will have.
Isolation feet do this by separating the turntable from sources of external vibrations, and they sometimes use spring components or damping material to better absorb any outside interference. It’s the same concept as closing your office door when your colleagues are too loud. We create a barrier so that we only hear what we want.
This is the base of the record player and the foundation that supports the rest of the setup. It acts to house the drive system and in the same vein as the isolation feet, the plinth helps to control resonance.
It is widely believed that heavy and solid bases do this very well, but it isn’t a clear-cut rule. Hollow bases can be cleverly designed by minimizing surface area and reducing the potential for resonance to give you a reliable understructure.
Since high mass is often the goal in reducing resonance, the material used to make the base will play a large role in how well it accomplishes this. However, we need to be careful about how much priority is given to this aspect because it can easily get out of hand. For example, lead might be a heavy material but imagine trying to lug around a lead plinth!
So, engineers do their best to find a middle ground between good resonance and reasonable design considerations. For these reasons, it’s common to find plinths made from MDF, wood, metal, and sometimes plastic.
The platter is what many people sometimes refer to as the turntable. And for obvious reasons! It’s the part that turns.
By now, you’re probably catching onto the trend that resonance and how different designs and materials affect it is a key factor in creating a high-quality record player. And the platter component is no different. Like the plinth, the platter fairs well when it has a high mass to help control resonance. In addition, heavier platters help to regulate the speed and provide a more consistent rotation.
In terms of material choices, metal is notorious for resonance issues. However, Sound Damped Steel is another ballpark. When steel and aluminum plates are bonded with a polymer, the polymer absorbs the vibrations and regulates resonance.
However, the true gem in this department is acrylic. It is regarded as one of the best choices for platters since acrylic matches the material of the vinyl record. This means that the record and the playing surface become coupled, which does a mighty fine job of controlling resonance.
The platter mat is somewhat of an optional part of a record player. It is a round mat placed on top of the platter to provide various benefits depending on the material used. Felt mats can be helpful when providing more slip on a DJ setup, whereas a cork mat can dampen resonance and improve the sound.
One can also find platter mats made from rubber, leather, and other hybrids.
The dust cover protects your turntable from dust that can gather on the surfaces. It is common for dust covers to be designed as a plastic lid that can be propped up when playing a record and closed when not in use.
Now that we’ve covered the platter and surface that rotates, we can discuss the system that makes those parts rotate in the first place. There are two main drive systems on the market: direct drive and belt drive.
A direct drive system is positioned so the platter sits directly on the motor. It’s a true sandwich setup where everything is concentrically layered on top of each other, with the spindle holding the centerline.
On the other hand, a belt drive system decouples the motor and platter by offsetting the motor to the side and using a belt to transfer the rotation to the platter. If you’ve ever used a pulley before, you may naturally understand how this works.
Simply put, the belt is looped around both the motor and the platter so that when the motor rotates, so does the platter.
Both systems will have their shining points, so the decision depends mostly on application and preference. The belt drive option can reduce resonance and therefore is fantastic for anyone looking for sound clarity.
Yet, the direct drive setup is favorable for DJ systems because they provide higher torque and can usually get up to speed quicker.
If you’ve laid eyes on a record player, you will have noticed the tonearm immediately. It is a distinctly straight, curved, or s-shaped rod that swings from the outer rim of the record to the center and holds the cartridge at the end. It is the part that allows the stylus to track the record’s grooves inwards.
The sweet spot for a tonearm is a low mass, high rigidity, and minimal vibration. Tonearm designs vary, and many approaches have been widely used, such as full-bearing and uni-pivot designs. Like most things in life, no one approach is hailed as perfect.
Different approaches hold pros and cons alike. For instance, full-bearing designs are easy to set up but don’t score well when bearing friction compared to a unipivot design.
In addition, material choice is a key factor when building a tonearm that can fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Since rigidity and strength is a priority, you can expect to see many tonearms made from aluminum and carbon fiber.
Although, rigidity isn’t the only reason that these materials are beloved. They are also light and therefore have less inertia to interfere with following the movement of the record.
Cartridge and Stylus
If you’ve ever wondered what the little contraption on the end of the tonearm is, it’s the cartridge. And no, it has nothing to do with ink like the ink cartridges in printers or pens! The cartridge is mounted onto the headshell and holds the stylus (needle).
It captures the vibrations by moving along the record grooves and translating them into a signal.
This translation of vibrations to an audio signal is carried through small cables and is commonly captured via two main methods: a moving coil or a moving magnet. In short, a moving coil gets its signal from the coil vibrating in a magnetic field, whereas a moving magnet gets its signal from the magnets vibrating.
In general, moving coil cartridges are more expensive than moving magnet designs but offer a more precise result.
The counterweight sits on the back of the tonearm, on the opposite end of the cartridge, and performs a balancing act with the force of the needle on the record. If you picture a set of scales, the counterweight, and the stylus would be the points of question and are important for regulating tracking force.
The tracking force is the downward force of the needle on the record. And in the same way that a seesaw tips from side to side, the counterweight normalizes the tonearm’s tipping so that the needle’s downward force is correct.
We’ll spare you the headache of going too deep into the centripetal forces at work here! But in essence, the anti-skate feature on some turntables is there to counteract the inward radial force that the tonearm experiences as the platter turns the record.
Anti-skate designs often appear as dials that one can adjust to offset that pesky inward force. However, some setups use weights attached to the tonearm to achieve a similar effect.
Power and Speed Switch
The power switch and the speed switch are small but large in importance. The power switch is rather self-explanatory; you need to be able to turn on your record player. And the speed switch allows you to toggle the speed of the turntable between 33 ⅓ RPM and 45 RPM so that you can play different record sizes.
A turntable’s cueing mechanism is a bit like the baking powder in a cake recipe. It’s a very simple ingredient but without it, you don’t have a cake at the end. The cue lever is what controls the vertical movement of the tonearm. Dropping it down to meet the record and lifting it to free the record of its contact with the stylus.
Without some type of cueing mechanism, even if it’s your hand manually moving the tonearm, you won’t be able to play any records because, without the lowering motion, your stylus can’t make contact with the record. No contact equals no signal and no signal equals no music.
While it is technically possible to operate your turntable without a cue lever and instead use your hand to guide the tonearm, this is not recommended. It’s a recipe for damaging your stylus.
The Sum of It All
As you can see, a turntable comprises many cleverly designed parts that all come together to form a magnificent machine. At first glance, many might say that it’s a miracle for music to result from mere grooves on a vinyl record.
But with your new-found knowledge of the anatomy of a turntable, you’re in a better position to understand that it is indeed a product of science, not wizardry.
If you are having issues with your record player that need fixing, we recommend reading our how to repair a record player article for some DIY tips.
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Trent is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado.