No matter what DJ software you use, there is one common variable that vinyl-emulation systems all rely on: needles. Normally, needles are the last things on your mind. Fidelity and cartridge specs are sometimes thought to be a trivial factor in the performance of the software. The common opinion is that, “As long as you have a good strong signal, then it does not matter what needle you use.” Although that is partially true, any regular user of multiple DJ carts will tell you that they all seem to feel or respond differently. That is, of course, a subjective observation and is dependent on a lot of variables that are hard to nail down. Now to further confuse the ranks of DJs, Ortofon has released a new DJ cartridge specifically aimed at the digital DJ market called the DigiTrack, which Ortofon claims to be a superior cartridge designed specifically for the digital realm. But what exactly makes one DJ cartridge better than the other? And how can we get optimal performance out of the needles we already have?
All control records contain a constant tone that transmits position and speed information to the computer. This tone usually sits between 1 and 2 kHz (midrange). As you speed the record up or down, either by adjusting the pitch or manually moving the record or platter, the tone is lowered or raised, and the computer interpolates those changes. The tone is right smack in the middle of the frequency range, and just about any needle on the market is going to be able to effectively pick it up during normal playback. When you slow down, scratch or speed up the record (backspins), however, the frequency range that the needle must pick up gets significantly wider. So although most needles are equal under normal playback scenarios, DJs who perform a lot of record manipulation may benefit from needles with a better frequency response, specifically a needle that handles the lower frequencies better, because that’s where most of the movement information ends up. It’s almost impossible to move the record fast enough to produce a tone above 16 kHz, so needles boasting higher frequency responses probably won’t do you much good. One important feature of a DJ cartridge that will affect its frequency range is the type of diamond used on the needle itself.
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
There are two kinds of diamond tips on DJ needles, and some models are made with both of those options, elliptical and spherical. These models are conveniently marked with an E or S at the end of the model name. Spherical needles are more rounded and sit higher in the record groove, so they don’t pick up the higher frequencies that sit on the bottom.
A good example of an elliptical needle would be the Ortofon Night-Club E (black with yellow tips). Although it picks up those lovely sparkling highs we all love, it can tear apart your favorite records. Elliptical needles sit lower in the groove, but because of their shape, they will rub against the walls of the groove and wear out the records and needles more rapidly, especially if everything is not aligned perfectly. You won’t notice that as quickly with standard records, but when using control records, performance will quickly degrade. Unless you can afford to replace your control records every few weeks, I would stick with a spherical needle.
THIS ONE GOES TO 11
The louder and stronger the tone, the more clearly it will be read by the computer — especially in live situations where it needs to overpower rumble and interference. You may be able to turn up the gains on some digital interfaces, but then you are raising the level of the control signal and the outside noise together. Better to start off with a strong signal in the first place. Needles are rated in mV for their output levels, and listed above are some of the loudest needles on the market and their respective frequency responses. All of those needles are spherical, and all list prices are for the mounting versions that require head shells.
THE LITTLE THINGS
How can you ensure that your needles are working as well as possible? Reduce rumble by isolating the turntables or turning down your monitors. Clean your control vinyl before every gig using Gruv Glide (www.gruvglide.com). Remove lint and dust from the records and the needle with a proper brush, not your hands! Dust builds up rapidly and can wreak hell on the control signal, so make a habit of cleaning every few songs. Align and adjust the cartridge according to the manufacturing specs so that you get the best signal possible. Don’t overweigh or turn in the carts at extreme angles. The contacts between the tone arm and the needle cartridge are a common problem area. Don’t lick the contacts! Reseating the cartridge will help fix contact problems, but licking them will only make it worse over time. Instead, use an eraser to clean the contacts on both the turntable and the cartridge. The common No. 2 pencil will work fine.
Most importantly, get yourself a good, loud cartridge on which you can afford to replace the needles. You might be better off buying new control records more frequently than spending the extra money on high-priced cartridges. The new DigiTrack does have a few key features that should translate into good tracking, but is it worth the price? Ultimately, you have to be the judge. Try it out in the store, and if you can’t tell the difference, then the answer may just be no.
Great article here, just one thing i’d like to add – the difference between elliptical and spherical styli is best understood with this analogy i like to use…
“If you imagine two people, with the same weight and same shoe size, walking in the snow; but one is wearing normal trainers while the other is wearing snow shoes; their effect on the snow will be completely different. The guy in normal shoes will sink in the snow, due to his body weight being distributed over a small area; whereas the man in snow shoes, because his weight is distributed over a wider surface area, will have little effect on the surface. Now if you imagine the guy in trainers as a spherical stylus, the guy in snow shoes as an elliptical stylus, and the snow as a vinyl record, you simply translate this reality to music reproduction.
Because a spherical stylus has limited contact points, its record wear is localised so though your vinyl groove may last longer, there will be worse localised wear, more immeditaely. However, because of this extra weight on a smaller surface area, the spherical cuts suit scratching, for it will skip less
Alternatively, if you use an elliptical stylus cut, it will actually inflict less immediate damage than a spherical stylus. This is because its contact surface area is spread more evenly. So in the long run, through general use, it will damage more of the record because of its larger contact area; but this process will take longer. The theory of elliptical being unsuitable for scratching because of its more detailed cut is wholly because its larger contact area (ironically) makes it more prone to skipping (unlike the spherical), not because it cuts the groove and ruins the record.”
This is obviously reliant on proper cartridge calibration – but the key factor here is weight distribution and pressure. Considering the minuscule contact areas involved in cartridge technology, the forces are huge and, therefore, very influential on a record’s life-span.
[quote comment=”25633″]Another thing to consider is how well they stay in the groove when you back cue lots. I noticed that the M44-7’s jiggle on the back cue, yet they’re the scratch standard?[/quote]
Probably your record being loose. Put small pieces of paper between record hole to secure it.
Another thing to consider is how well they stay in the groove when you back cue lots. I noticed that the M44-7’s jiggle on the back cue, yet they’re the scratch standard?
Great Article Ean, only came across it many years later from the webcast you were on off the remix.com website.
Anyways my question is besides having a good needle/catridge like the one you suggested Shure M44-7, how important are the turntables themselves.
I'm using a pretty low-end turntable the Stanton t.92 USB with Traktor pro Scratch and an Audio 8 DJ soundcard with a Pioneer DJM800 mixer. The issue i'm finding is that the response does not seem brilliant – which i'm not sure is related to the standard cartridges that come with the turntables or if its the actual limitations of the turntables tone arm.
I'm also running this on Mac with OSX 10.5.6 on a 2.16GHZ Intel Core Duo 2 with 3 gigs of ram. So i feel my computer hardware is adequate but wondering will a better needle help the tracking and response more?
[quote comment=""]wow how come no one is all over this articles' nuts? this shit is helpful. thanks![/quote]
yeah- I think we need to bring back some of these older articles. Someone should post this on the serato forum.
wow how come no one is all over this articles' nuts? this shit is helpful. thanks!