Get into the groove, for sound improvement

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.

First, let’s revisit the problem.

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.

The Kit

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.

The Benefit

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)

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14 thoughts on “Get into the groove, for sound improvement

  1. I clean my records on my neighbour’s VPI record cleaner and he only uses the Disco-Antistat fluid that you have depicted above. I will email him this article, ’cause it may convince him to start cleaning with two fluids as well. Nice read and the photos from David B’s visit to the record plant were a treat 😉

  2. “I couldn’t live without” is an over-used (and usually inaccurate) term, but I will apply it to my Moth Mk I RCM and Moth pre-made cleaning fluid. I honestly don’t think there is any other single thing that makes as much difference to the sound of secondhand records as this combination does… It is my friend for life, my helpmeet, my partner in record collecting. And damn, I love the smell of RCM fluid on a wet Bank Holiday morning….

    • I hear wedding bells…
      “Do you take this record cleaning machine to be your lawful wedded, umm, “partner” ?”
      “I do.”
      eeeeeaaaaangeeeeaaang…
      “Sorry, I can’t hear you.
      I DO! !
      eeeeeaaaaangeeeeaaang…
      Sorry, still can’t hear you…

      Wickes do a great pair of ear defenders.

    • Hi David – Thanks for the link to the Hayes visit – very interesting.

      It seems everything to do with HiFi attracts “controversy” and record cleaning is no different.

      I was surprised by what your man Steve said about not using a release agent at EMI, – a couple of comments in that thread were interesting “The factory that you toured doesn’t use coatings, but I’m pretty sure that at least some American firms did use mold release agent…We can’t make hard and fast rules about things like this because different factories used different procedures..”. Another added “many pressing facilities used release agents to wipe their stampers with to increase production speed” So, we got another controversy.

      I know nothing, as they say, only what I hear, which is a clear noticeable improvement in sound quality and reduced surface noise following cleaning with alcohol-based fluids, whatever it is due to. I see quite a few HiFi forum posters don’t believe in cleaning either. Works for me..

      • I pretty much only buy old LP’s so I think its best to clean them as a matter of course. As I’m tight I go for a homemade mix of Distilled Water/IPA and as you report it does seem to cut down any extra noise.
        What factories do now producing in relatively small batches may not compare to what happened in the old days when records were made in the hundreds of thousands so this could also explain the difference.

        • David, there is a post from Audiogon referenced at VinylEngine which discusses the topic.

          Mould release agent is a stearate compound which is mixed with the vinyl before pressing. It flows at a lower temperature than the vinyl, so as the vinyl cools and sets up, the release agent is still in a semi-liquid state, which allows the record to easily separate from the stamper. But then, it too hardens.

          It’s important to get as much of that agent off the record as possible — to prevent build-up on your stylus and to prevent dirt/dust from getting imbedded into it over time. I was told all this during a recent conversation with one of the techs at Quality Pressings, a new high tech stamping facility which Chad Kassem recently built.”

          I am not a chemist, and I may be a complete plonker – I know only what others tell me – but it might explain why your host said what he did. From this and a few other I Googled, there is a common thread among some forum posts that mould release (stearic acid) is already mixed in the vinyl, so Steve is “correct” – he doesn’t add anything, because its already there.

          They say ignorance is bliss, but I learned quite a few new things today following up your post, so thank you.

  3. Excellent post, and wonderful EM photos of the grooves—and the dirt.

    However, I’m pretty sure the Disco-antistat is not ethanol based. It smells slightly of Iso Propyl Alcohol and if it was ethanol based it would attract a duty payment to the treasury. Ethanol is very drinkable!

    My guess is the D-A also just uses IPA, but the wetting agent, which can possibly also act as a detergent/degreasing agent, is different to the British Audio fluid. The D-A formula is secret.

    We’ll probably never know, but the only important thing is they both work and appear to be complimentary. You may want to edit your blog.

    Guy

  4. The “applicator brush” for cleaning fluids is more of a (gentle) “yard broom” for vinyl than an anti-static duster. The carbon fibres are groove thickness, to help the fluid to penetrate deep into the bottom of the grooves where the gunk is, and the density of fibres helps overcome the resistence you see from greasy patches, especially on the well-fingered first track.

    You have to load the brush with fluid before use as it doesn’t function when dry. I doubt it has any anti-static properties like the “surface dust” type of brush you describe.

    As a young hifi buff, I can well remember using an “Emitex” cloth and a “dust bug” on a rubber suction cup sitting on my Garrad turntable. Unfortunately these have no effect on the pop-causing clinginig debris lodged in the groove.

  5. When you say a “purpose designed” brush, do you mean a brush that is designed for the wet cleaning of records? Or would any carbon fiber brush for vinyl record use do the job? I have a CF brush I use for dusting off the record and fighting static before playing, but I would obviously obtain a second brush used just for the wet application.

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