An occasional post about the technical aspects of getting the best out of vinyl, prompted by the recent purchase of a number of records on Ebay with surface noise issues. If you are a follower of The Cult of the Evil Silver Disk, look away now; if you are a wizened vinyl crustie who swears by cleaning records with a mixture of 4-star unleaded and badger’s urine, quit smokin’ that stuff right now. It’s a rainy British Bank Holiday Weekend, and an ideal opportunity to catch up on vinyl collector’s “housework”.
The need for a Vinyl Solution
Many of your records are better than you think. A lot of older records out there have fifty years of accumulated muck, have never been cleaned, and we all know there are inexpensive ways to improve your listening experience through proper cleaning. What is new is a method to achieve greatly superior results than found previously.
The music written into the groove wall is accompanied by microscopic dust, dirt, and in some cases, mould release – creating “bad information” which your stylus reads the same way it reads “good information” – the music.
The vinyl grooves of an LP close up
To get any closer calls for an electron microscope. These pictures created by the optics department at Rochester University give us an amazing look in the groove..
(original source here)
Along comes Stanley the Stylus riding in the trench, sashaying against the contours in the 45 degree groove wall that are the musical information, sending those physical movements up into the moving coils in the cartridge above to be turned into electrical information destined for amplification. The movements can be as small as 1/1000th of the thickness of a human hair, and everything the stylus hits gets transferred as information.
In addition to the physical microscopic junk in the grooves, there are surface coatings present – the greasy residue of fingerprints, and “mould release” – a chemical (stearic acid) included in the formulation of raw vinyl to ensure clean separation of the hot vinyl disc from the metal stamper (Warning. Hifi controversy alert! More discussion in the comments below). Some people claim such surface coatings cause a degree of “muddyness” in the sound, which lifts after cleaning. As with all things HiFi, there are also sceptics.
Two problems require two solutions
A friend who buys mainly new modern records swears by an ethanol-based cleaning fluid which targets mould release and static. New records tend not to have the accumulated 50 years of muck in the groove. In contrast, I swear by an Iso-Propyl Alcohol (IPA) based cleaner, which is more ruthless on clicks and pops created by fifty years of crap in the grooves.
By a fortuitous experiment we found neither one fully did the job of the other. Ethanol was better at mould release, isopropyl alcohol was better at clicks and pops. But if you clean with one, and again with the other, the combined improvement on vinyl reproduction can be quite remarkable.
I litre each of two proprietary cleaning formulas, one Isopropyl alcohol based, the other Ethanol based; a 5ml syringe, which offers 2.5ml per side, about the exact amount required to soak the grooves of an LP, a purpose-designed carbon-fibre brush to spread the fluid, and an old glass ramekin dish which serves as an intermediate fluid reservoir for a cleaning session.
And of course a record cleaning machine which vacuums off the fluid and the gunk, which otherwise evaporates leaving the gunk behind. I recommend the Moth Pro from British Audio Products, which is a noisy but affordable and therefore popular machine compared with more expensive alternatives, but there are many others available. The VPI is also popular.
Often a 75% reduction in surface noise, and significantly enhanced musical presence, at a cost of maybe less than 50 pence a record. Improved stylus life, and less wear on your records. And much improved enjoyment of your records.
(Back to music over the rest of the holiday)