Last Updated: April 12, 2019
The record cleaning mix muddle
Tired of paying £20 for a litre for record cleaning fluid for your Moth, VPI or other vacuum machine and waiting weeks for the postman to call each time you run out? In a recent conversation with the manufacturer of one record cleaning machine, a Director confided “I don’t know why people just don’t make their own, it’s very simple, but as long as they want to pay me for it, I’ll make it”. My recipe works out a third of the cost and is based on a commercial formula.
It is intended for use with a record cleaning machine which vacuums off the fluid. I don’t recommend the fluid simply for “washing” and drying through evaporation because that simply leaves dissolved contaminants in place.
Let Me Google That For You: lots of bad advice freely available
A quick internet search on how to make record cleaner fluid will give you assorted home-made recipes and much poor quality advice – superstition, myth, contradictory claims, and in some cases, dangerous advice, however well-intentioned. I suspect there is something rooted in our childhood to do with cleaning that triggers feelings and emotions . A legacy of potty training, or perhaps a memory of spoiling something by applying too much force, gets projected on to the process. Just relax, it will be all right!
Here are some examples of bad advice found on the Internet:
Recipe for confusion
- “I caution against home brew concoctions. Store bought ingredients simply can’t match the purity of commercial formulations.”
- “I took the LP to the sink, gave it a good dousing of Windex and wiped ‘er down with a fresh J-Cloth…. The result was astounding. The record sounded mint!”
- “400ml water, 2 drops of household washing up liquid and a cap of malt vinegar”
- “Squirt lighter fluid on a clean, soft cloth and gently wipe the record surface. The lighter fluid will evaporate, so the record doesn’t need to be rinsed.”
Water source confusion
- “I’ve used the melted ice from my freezer (filtered), as my physics lecturer and
audiophile friend says this is as good as any other.”
- “We’re talking about ‘safe for human consumption’ tap water here, isn’t this preoccupation with absolutely pure water a little anally retentive?”
Alcohol dilution rate confusion
- “I use roughly 1 part Isopropyl to two parts purified water …..”
- “90% Isopropyl Alcohol, 5% – Anti-Microbial soap 5% – de-ionized water”
- “Those of you that use Isopropyl you must be careful: Isoproply will harden vinyl.”
Wetting agent confusion
- “A few drops of photographic wetting agent. … just a drop of washing up liquid as a wetting agent ….. 10 drops Photo-Flo + 10 drops “Direct” tile cleaner ….. a teaspoon of car washer fluid ….. 7-8 drops dishwashing detergent without additives ….. 1 drop Triton X-114 or Monolan 2000 ….. 10 drops of Kodak Photo-Flo and 10 drops of Lysol Antibacterial All-Purpose Cleaner….Dawn Dishwashing Fluid,…. few drops of dish washing soap without lubricants. …..3-4 drops per gallon Kodak Photoflo …..a few drops of Ilfotrol (sic) photographic wetting agent.”
NOW FOR SOME GOOD ADVICE: –
THE LJC FORMULA, TRIED AND TESTED, SAVES TIME, NO WORRIES
Use only the purest ingredients, purchased online from reputable chemical suppliers, and store final mix in clean glass or plastic bottle suitable for containing alcohol.
Ingredient 1. Isopropyl Alcohol
The purpose of cleaning is to ensure naked contact between the stylus and the information encoded into the grooves, and nothing between the two, hence the use of alcohol to dissolve any surface contaminants (cigarette smoke, skin oils, mould-release, airborne matter) which are then vacuumed away.
The main active cleaning ingredient is the well known and commonly used Isopropanol, known as Isopropyl AlcohoI or lPA for short . It is readily available from chemical suppliers at 99.9% purity – the highest laboratory-grade commercially available. One litre costs about $10, and diluted with pure distilled water, it will make five litres of record cleaning fluid, which should keep you going for a year or two.
Health warning: IPA is a poisonous alcohol, unlike its chemical relative used in some record cleaning recipes – Ethanol , though even that is treated to prevent human consumption – and avoid taxation of alcoholic beverages. High Street pharmacies are not a good source – they seem to treat anyone wanting to buy pure alcohol with suspicion, some refuse to sell it, or price it prohibitively to discourage misuse. UK high street chemists Boots charge three times the commercial price of isopropanol, making it more costly than a good single malt whisky. Lower concentrations of alcohol, like rubbing alcohol (70% IPA), are a false economy when you can but the pure stuff, cheaply and reliably on line, with no added ingredients to make it smell nice or colour co-ordinate with your room decor.
To get a sense of perspective, my recommended dilution rate of 1:4 is just slightly stronger than a glass of wine. How worried would you be about a splash of wine accidentally spilled on a record, and quickly washed off? I mean apart from the wine wasted.
There are commercial alternative cleaning fluids which depend entirely on detergent rather than alcohol, such as L’Art du Son, which have their followers. I have tried that, it is expensive, not as effective, didn’t wet in as quickly as my alcohol formula, a nuisance to constantly make up small batches, and after a few months I found it throws deposits in the bottle and looks like something is growing in it. I’m not a fan of detergent-based cleaners.
Ingredient 2: Distilled Water
The highest purity of distilled water is triple filtered and steam condensed/distilled to eliminate thoroughly the contaminants and mineral deposits in tap water. Avoid water sold for other purposes, such as car batteries, and on no account use tap water. By using pure distilled water with this IPA recipe you will still save two thirds of the cost of commercial record cleaner without taking any risks trying to save a few pennies more.
Whilst triple-filtered is the gold standard, a local pharmacy can usually supply a 5 litre bottle of “purified water BP” – this is a British Pharmacopoeia standard water used for the preparation of common medicines. If its good enough for medicines, its good enough for me. Collection of purified water from your local pharmacy also saves you the high cost of freight delivery to your home, reducing cost and adding convenience.
Update April 12, 2019: “RO water”
An even more cost-effective alternative to Distilled/Purified Water ($1-1.50 per 5 litres) is water prepared through the Reverse Osmosis process (RO), as supplied by aquarium/ aquatics suppliers. RO water is prepared by passing ordinary water through a fine membrane which extracts a large proportion of dissolved solids and much, but not all, water-bound bacteria.
Most commercially supplied Purified Water is simply Reverse Osmosis water that has had further treatment, with ultra-violet light, which disarms any remaining bacteria. Some Purified Water is sold with the disclaimer that it is not “completely sterile” (legalese CYA) . Ultra-violet treatment equipment is not usually within the scope of record collectors, however the addition of a defined quantity of sulphites (1 gram of sodium meta-bisulphite powder per 5 litres of RO water) provides the necessary KO to any residual bacteria. Sulphites are commonly used in food preparation (think, wine: “contains sulphites”) and for sterilising beer and wine making equipment, so effectively harmless at this dosage, and will ensure that water used in record cleaning and within the water tank of ultrasonic record cleaners does not harbour bacterial growth.
Ingredient 3. Wetting Agent
The final ingredient required is a surfactant – a “wetting agent” . I recommend Ilford Ilfotol, no doubt there are other similar products in other countries. Though this is pricey, as it is sold in only 1 litre bottles and you need only 5ml – a teaspoonful – per litre of final cleaning mix, I view it as wasteful but necessary.
Surfactant: the all-important “secret” ingredient
Wetting agent belongs to a chemical group known as “surfactants”, whose rate of dilution results in different effects. At very low levels they act as an emulsifier, at a higher level they act to reduce surface tension (wetting) and at higher still, they become a detergent (look up the ingredients of washing up liquid – “ionic and non-ionic surfactants”)
You must add wetting agent. IPA/distilled water mix on its own does not “wet”, and will not penetrate the vinyl grooves. Due to water surface tension, the liquid without surfactant draws back from the vinyl to form rivulets and pools, drawn to itself.
The solution is wetting agent, an additive used in the photographic industry where the same issue was encountered in washing photographic films and papers. Wetting agent reduces the surface tension of water, and was developed to ensure even washing of photographic film and papers, promote even drying without water marks or residues, and imparting anti-static qualities.
Ilford, a long-established British manufacturer of films, papers and developing chemicals, have been making “Ilfotol” wetting agent for decades, photographic professionals entrusting negatives from film shoots costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to wetting agent. The manufacturers data sheet recommends a start point dilution of 1:200 – 5ml per litre, equivalent to a teaspoon. Adding wetting agent changes how the cleaning fluid behaves. Spreading flat on the surface like glass, allowing the alcohol to fill the groove and do its job.
I tested half the recommended 5ml per litre of cleaning fluid and it still wetted, though a little more hesitantly. 5ml seems about the sweet spot.The “few drops” some people recommend is completely ineffective, and more than 5ml tends to result in detergent foam.
UPDATE April 2019 – Ilford Photographic have recently rebranded the Ilfotol wetting agent, however it remains substantially the same product, just under a different name and packaging.
Note: The US equivalent wetting product from Kodak, “Photo-flo” is specifically not recommended for cleaning records as it contains chemicals which remain as a coating on the surface, which will contaminate the stylus tip. I have no personal knowledge of its effects but it seems well documented, though as with everything, the internet can be an echo-chamber of misinformation.
Other helpful accessories and advice
One tool which is essential in all record cleaning is a 5ml oral syringe (oral = no “needle”), costing about $1. Not only will it control the exact dosage of preparations like wetting agent, it ensures you administer the correct amount of cleaning fluid to the record surface : 2.5ml per side is exactly enough to get good coverage of the vinyl surface, controlling the delivery to keep it away from the label, and sufficient not to start evaporating during the few minutes of a cleaning session. Cheap and after a few months use, replace.
Five litres are good for a year or two’s supply, one-third of the retail cost of the cheapest proprietary commercial record cleaning product. Convenience and simplicity in a bottle, which should of course be suitable for storage of alcohol-based solvent.
Pour quantity required for current cleaning session only into intermediate reservoir such as small glass bowl, taking care to avoid spillage. Return any surplus unused cleaner to storage bottle at the end of the cleaning session. I find the glass rimmed and fluted ramekins that come with single portion cheesecake dessert have many advantages – the cheesecake is great, they hold enough for washing eight to ten records, and pour in and out without spillage.
Use wide soft brush designed for record cleaners purpose (available from record cleaning machine suppliers) to spread the fluid on the record surface and ensure complete coverage up to the label edge, but not onto the label itself. Don’t use a paintbrush which sheds bristles glued in by adhesive. Use of nail-brush or other scrubbing-function is not recommended – merely spread and allow the cleaning fluid to do the work.
Storage after cleaning: Ensure record is perfectly dry before returning it into an inner sleeve. I recommend using a fresh nagaoka-type inert mylar archival quality inner bag to store the cleaned record, within a new paper outer sleeve. New inner sleeves eliminates the risk of contamination from previous sleeve usage. You do not know what previous record owners have done- I’ve encountered some stupid things, like the one who used metal staples to mend split seams of the inner bag, which remained loose and unseen in the sleeve and deeply scratched the record grooves. Fresh inner sleeve = peace of mind. The white paper sleeve makes no contact with the record surface, no paper scuff or paper dust, and a useful place to write down important detail, and notes of your listening observations (audio quality, artist performances, stand-out tracks).
Benefits of vinyl cleaning – the evidence
The audible benefit of clean records far outweighs the small outlay and effort – fewer clicks and pops, reduced contamination of your stylus tip, and a subtle enhancement of clarity from the removal of fifty years of contamination – condensed tobacco smoke, greasy fingerprints, and manufacturing process by-product, mould release. I wouldn’t dream of not cleaning. Every record is cleaned before first playing, even if brand new. Many will benefit from a second even a third clean.
The only thing not removed by record washing is the occasional presence of small pieces of “grit ” wedged in the groove. These are the origin of random pops, which occur when struck by the stylus. These are best dealt with by lightly stroking the circumference of the vinyl surface with dry fingers prior to washing.
The only thing I can’t help you with is the cost of a vacuum cleaning machine. It is a one-off essential investment for anyone serious about listening to music on vinyl. Throw away the dustbug and the cleaning cloth which pushes muck down into the groove.Cleaning is not just about dust. Only wet cleaning/vacuuming ensures all contaminants are dissolved by the cleaner. The resulting solution and any dust is whisked away, leaving your record in optimal condition for playing.
One last thing – keep an anti-static brush next to your turntable to remove any airborne dust and static gathered during a playing session. Give it a couple of turns after the turntable has stopped (don’t stress your TT drive-belt by dusting while spinning) and returning the record to the inner bag and sleeve.
Controversy: can cleaning harm records?
You should be aware there has been a theoretical argument, written by a chemist, that exposure of vinyl to alcohol can cause leeching of plasticiser from vinyl, causing it to harden. The molecular chemistry theory is not backed up by any information on the practical concentration or length of exposure required to cause harm in the real world. As often the case, lazy academic advice is a counsel of perfection, without regard to quantifying the risk and benefits. They don’t care if you have dirty records, its not their problem, they have no solution to offer, quantifying things is difficult, but they have warned you.
Another argument I have read against alcohol in contact with vinyl is that it strips away “the protective coating of vinyl”(not meaning mould release) and that repeated cleaning with alcohol makes records sounds “harsh and brittle” leaving your records “permanently scarred” This from a respected Hi Fi journalist! Vinyl does not have a “protective coating”, it is just vinyl. Any “coating” would interfere with the translation of information at the point of stylus contact. You can’t strip away what isn’t there.
If playing a record with clean surface contact between stylus and vinyl groove sounds “harsh” (as they claim to have found in a “test”) they are experiencing serious confirmation bias and projection (I found what I expected). At worst, there is a trade off between the many benefits of cleaning and the theoretical potential for harm. However, fearmongering is rife on the internet. Your choice, it’s the world we live in, you have to form a judgement about what you trust.
Well diluted Isopropyl alcohol has been used for decades for professional cleaning of vinyl. Alcohol is an effective cleaner used by tens of thousands of vinyl lovers. I have cleaned thousands of records with diluted alcohol and water based commercial cleaner over many years to considerable audio benefit and no harm I can detect. I don’t have any concern about a well diluted solution exposed to vinyl for a matter of minutes and removed by vacuum. A record needs to be machine-cleaned only once in its life.
Recipes which recommend ethanol, as used in commercial record cleaning products like Knosti, may suit those of a more nervous disposition. No doubt a chemist somewhere will find a theoretical risk with ethanol, which is why chemists don’t often get invites to parties.
What about cleaning Styrene records?
The plastic compound styrene was used as a substitute for vinyl in the production of records – mainly but not exclusively 45s – from the mid ’50s through to 60’s and 70s. Styrene was considered cheaper and more efficient than vinyl, at the expense of being more brittle, and more vulnerable to groove wear.
Whilst alcohol-based cleaning fluid is unsuitable for 78’s, the preferred method of cleaning styrene and vinyl remains the same. Both styrene and vinyl are derivatives of oil and petroleum, so they have a similar chemical origin.
Because raw vinyl is fairly rigid (think PVC plumbing pipes!) it had a chemical plastyliser added, to give it the flexibility needed to form record grooves. Plastyliser is known to be affected by contact with alcohol, though no one has identified scientifically what strength and how long an exposure to alcohol is harmful to the vinyl surface, it is a theoretical issue. In medicine, it is said that everything is potentially harmful, dependent on dosage. It is dosage – the quantity – that makes chemicals harmful, even fatal.
Prolonged contact with highly concentrated alcohol is probably harmful to vinyl, short exposure to dilute alcohol promptly vacuumed away, does more good than harm. I don’t find any more reason to be concerned about IPA cleaner on styrene than on vinyl. The best way forward is to try it on a very dirty styrene record you don’t much like, play before and after cleaning, and see what happens. It should simply sound cleaner and better.
Disclaimer: This recipe is offered in good faith, works for me and thousands of others, but because of factors outside of my control, you proceed at your own risk. For use only on vinyl records. Alcohol is potentially poisonous and inflammable: take appropriate precautions in handling, storage and use (as indicated on bottle of commercially-supplied Isopropyl alcohol) Keep away from naked lights, keep bottles capped at all times. Not for human consumption, if ingested accidentally seek medical advice. If ingested deliberately, seek professional help, but be sure to send me a copy of your tasting notes.