Last Updated: December 14, 2017 (ultrasonic cleaning)
Many of your records may be in much better condition than you think. Whilst nothing will eliminate physical surface damage, you would be surprised how much debris causing surface noise can be removed. Older records generally have fifty years of accumulated debris and have never had the benefit of proper modern cleaning, and no, a “dust bug” or “Emitex cloth” didn’t clean, it merely moved dust about. There are practical ways to improve your listening experience, through ultrasonic (very expensive) or wet/vacuum cleaning (still expensive) which achieves greatly superior results.
All records started life with an ultra-thin film of residue “mould release” , a stearic acid compound included in raw vinyl to ensure it’s clean separation from the pressing stamper.
Then each time the record was taken out of its sleeve to play, the grooves were exposed to domestic dust, dirt, greasy fingerprint residue, and in olden days, cigarette smoke. Some record owners rarely returned the record to its sleeve, leaving them piled in a heap after playing. Poor handling practice and lack of care has left a lot of vinyl records with remediable residues, and some non-soluble ones.
Some vinyl problems can’t be solved
Manufacturing analogue vinyl was not perfect process, and even “mint” records can suffer faults. Not all pressing plants operated in a sufficiently clean environment. Under pressure to improve margins, and win pressing contracts, some plants took to cost-cutting at the expense of quality. Less than perfect acetates with small flaws were sold more cheaply. Record labels stored in damp warehousing could absorb moisture, and needed to be made bone-dry or released steam during pressing, which caused pressing imperfections. Batches of vinylite could be bulked up with a proportion of recycled vinyl containing paper fragments. Some labels are notorious for “noisy” pressings.
If they came out of the factory good, record owners were the next problem. Physical impact damage to grooves caused by heavyweight tone arms being jogged or dropped on the record are the biggest drawbacks of vintage vinyl pursuit. The portable record player was inherently unstable and prone to scratch vinyl. It’s reckoned 70-80% of 50s/60s vinyl is not of collectable quality
Yet another problem that needed to be avoided is the damage done by storage for decades in a polythene-lined inner sleeve. Such inner sleeves were popular in the ’60s and eventually ruined records. Over the decades the polythene formed a reaction with vinyl, leaving a thin surface film bonded to the vinyl surface. The first visible sign is a moire-pattern rippling reflection on the vinyl surface, usually extending beyond the grooves and onto the run-out vinyl land. It doesn’t wash off. Potentially, the heat generated at the point of contact between stylus and vinyl may transfer molten plastic on to your stylus tip, permanently impairing its performance. There is no solution. Do not buy or play a record with this problem, it’s not worth it.
Avoid so called vinyl “lubricants”
Avoid anything which coats the grooves, like LAST “vinyl preservative”, anti-static spray coating or anything claiming to lubricate the groove. There is a school of thought in the hi-fi community that vinyl benefits from lubrication. Any additional material in the groove creates “bad information” which your stylus reads the same way it reads “good information” – the music, and impairs faithful reproduction. You want bare clean grooves, and nothing else.
Economic case for cleaning.
There is another more serious aspect, which I have read but can’t claim to prove. The point of contact between the stylus tip and vinyl causes friction and considerable build up of heat, which causes the vinyl momentarily to soften, potentially welding any existing particle of grit into the groove. It is claimed this process acts like sandpaper, abrading the vinyl groove and impairing the function of the stylus, shortening its life.
Be wary of people selling you problems in order to sell you a solution! However, no harm will come from proper cleaning – there is no good reason not to clean records – and there are many benefits. A record cleaning machine is an essential component of any Hi Fi and essential for any serious record collector.
The vinyl grooves of an LP close up
To get any closer calls for an electron microscope. These amazing pictures created by the optics department at Rochester University give us an intimate look in the vinyl 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 groove/ stylus sensitivity to generate discernible change in sound can be as small as 1/1000th of the thickness of a human hair, and everything the stylus hits gets interpreted as information. Any dust or muck in the groove which gets onto the stylus tip reduces it’s reading efficiency, which is why you should clean records before first play.
Some people claim unwanted vinyl surface coatings cause a degree of “muddyness” in the sound, which lifts after cleaning, but as with all things HiFi, there are also sceptics, like this one on a hifi forum:
The more you clean vinyl, the more dirty they get and the more pops and crackles you hear. Most of the records I have … do not have static nor pop sounds because I’ve never cleaned them from day one.
It takes all sorts, though this one has thought himself into a cul-de-sac, a variant of the famous advert from the Sixties. “I’ve never tried Guiness because I don’t like it” . How does he know his records get more pops after cleaning, if he doesn’t clean them?
Another cleaning-sceptic claimed muck “filled in holes in the vinyl”, like tarmac fills holes in the road, giving you a smoother ride. Superstition is rife in hi fi, and a belief in magic. I ripped a track before and after cleaning. When I A:B’d the two rips you can hear the pop on one absent on the other. It’s called science– knowledge gained by experimentation, observation and measurement, which can be replicated and used to advantage. It’s not just the preserve of scientists. Ordinary folk can do it too.
Two problems, two solutions
A friend who buys mainly new modern records swears by an ethanol-based cleaning fluid (commercial brand Knosti Disco Antistat) which claims to target mould release and static. For vintage vinyl, I recommend an Iso-Propyl Alcohol (IPA) based cleaner, which I find is is more effective in shifting contact soiling and accumulated detritus in the grooves.
I have found the use of both can be quite effective. Clean with one, and again with the other, a continued improvement in vinyl reproduction can be obtained, if only because a record benefits from a second wash, with slightly different effect.
The Record Cleaning Machine and process
You really need a record cleaning machine which vacuums off the cleaning fluid and the gunk, which otherwise evaporates, leaving the gunk behind. Some people a rinse a newly-cleaned record with a distilled water wash. I think this is a redundant step, but I can’t see any harm from it.
There are numerous machines on offer at different pricepoints and with different methods of operation. I recommend the Moth Pro from British Audio Products, which is a noisy but affordable (around the £500 mark) and therefore popular machine compared with more expensive alternatives, but there are many others available. The VPI is also popular, and the Oki Noki, Nitty Gritty.
Some people baulk at the cost of a cleaning machine. The Moth Pro is around £500, VPI is similar, Loricraft at around £1500, and there are now the new generation of ultrasonic cleaning machines (Klaudio and Audio Systeme) at around the £2,000 price-point. If cost is not an issue, lucky you, probably ultrasonic is the way to go. For the rest of us, a wet/vacuum system is a practical solution, and nothing is the worst solution. Given the cost of a high-end hi fi in tens of thousands of pounds, and a record collection possibly much more, with your listening pleasure at stake, why would you not invest in a cleaner?
Visible evidence of dust and dirt removal
In the real-world before and after example above, you see the odd bit of persistent debris. The first wash is the most critical, and successive washes remove more detritus, but there is a technique I have found more beneficial still.
Pre-wash: the finger touch method
In addition to surface dust, pet-hairs, and easily removed contamination (one recently had chocolate smears, god knows how) single pops are mostly caused by debris tightly wedged in the grooves, which resist washing out. You can see some in the post-wash close up above.
Forget the rule of never touching the vinyl groove surface. Do a quick finger-trace over the vinyl surface to dislodge any persistent debris, before commencing the wash. Gently run three fingers over the grooves in a short brushing motion in the direction of the groove rotation, turning the disc slowly in your hand. You will see tiny specks of white dust being swept aside, but these are not what you are after. You will very often feel some specks of grit which resist your touch, wedged in the groove, visible under bright light. It’s not unusual for there to be a half dozen or more on a side, especially vintage records, and these will each generate a click when the stylus hits them.
If you apply repeated gentle finger brushing these will often yield up, but if they persist, a gentle push with fingernail will often release them. Never use more force than necessary, which could do more harm than good. You want to release any trapped grit – 90% of grit specks will shift with finger pressure, one in ten is firmly welded in the groove, will not budge.
Once you are satisfied there are no further specks of grit to be felt you can proceed to the washing stage, which will dissolve away any oil residue from your finger contact, and the original gunk and mould release. This manual touch-brushing I have found effective in acheiving near-silent playback from records with previously persistent clicks and pops.
The Benefit of cleaning
Nothing will repair physical damage to the groove, such as scratches, major scuffs, dropped tone-arm, or groove-wear. However, for the undamaged record, up to a 75% reduction in avoidable surface noise can be expected, especially single clicks, significantly enhanced musical presence, improved stylus life, and less wear on your records. And much improved enjoyment of your records. At a cost of maybe less than 50 pence a record.
The Nuclear Option: Ultrasonic Cleaning
Whilst vacuum systems which have been around for a good couple of decades provide a proven and “affordable” record cleaning system, the way to go with the best technology available today but at a considerably greater equipment cost, is ultrasonic cleaning.
Ultrasonic cleaning utilises a process called “cavitation” – in which high-frequency sound waves create cavitation bubbles in a liquid bath of water and surfactant. The cavitation bubbles produce high forces that clean vinyl in a powerful but minimally abrasive manner, penetrating cracks and recesses. Removable contaminants include dust, dirt, oil, grease, fungus, and mould release. It is perfect for vinyl because it requires zero contact with the record and gets deep into the grooves.
To watch a record being cleaned ultrasonically (beats watching paint dry, just not much), shot here in 1080p HD with sound at LJC Studios in London, uploaded to YouTube.
Audiodesk Pro Ultrasonic record cleaning machine, full basic cycle six minutes. Hear your vinyl in the cleanest condition currently possible, the only harm it can do is to your piggy bank. The A/D Pro is a bit over £2k, so it is not for everyone, but I consider it well worth the expense. I’ll tell you why.
In vinyl-based Hi-Fi there is a chain of command, running from the source, the vinyl groove, through stages of amplification, to the final sound from the speakers. It is axiomatic that any weakness in the chain leads merely to amplification of that weakness, so the biggest investment should be closest to the source. That source is the point of contact between the stylus and the vinyl groove wall. Any improvement in that point of contact ensures the signal has the best possible start in life, before it heads off through the chain of amplification, to emerge at its final destination – your ears. Anything in that groove impairs contact, which is why you want it as clean as possible. That is what cavitation does.
Audiodesk Pro in operation
The tank is filled with 4.5 litres of purified water and a small bottle of surfactant (proprietary liquid, £12 a pop), which is good to clean 100-150 records, before emptying out and refilling.
The original Audiodesk ultrasonic cleaner was launched around five years ago, simply as a cavitation machine, at nearly twice the price. The “Pro” has had five years of development, adding improvements to the cleaning cycle. Great attention has been paid to the build quality of internal parts, as befits a product of this price range. All parts are user-replaceable – such as filters, rollers and wiper blades.
The six minute cleaning cycle starts with the water reservoir pumped up into the upper chamber, where the vinyl gets about five rotations in the bath with the vinyl surface agitated between two pairs of fluffy rollers. This is followed by five rotations applying ultrasonic cavitation – blasting the grooves with powerful jets of air bubbles – then to finish, slow rotation with an air dryer. Vinyl emerges static free and dry, ready to play.
The machine can be co-located in a domestic environment next to the record collection or hifi, no liquid splashing on carpets, and sufficiently quiet in use not to disturb others in the house. Forget any idea of wholesale cleaning your collection. It is operationally practical enough to be part of a proper “workflow”: select record from shelf – pop it in the cleaner – then straight onto the turntable to play (not forgetting to increment the count of records cleaned by one, and a pencilled note”date cleaned” on corner of paper inner sleeve).
Results of ultrasonic cleaning: visual inspection
The album is Archie Shepp, Attica Blues on Impulse, mid ’60s original press. Black and white overexposed forensic photos capture the amount of “garbage” present immediately before cleaning and after. This record had an ipa/vacuum cleaning a couple of years previously, but gathered stuff over time, or wasn’t fully cleaned through that process. Frankly, I’m shocked at how much garbage this record had still on the surface. The effect of ultrasonic cleaning: 99.9% clean, just a handful of specs, which may be just fresh ambient dust, or specs welded into the groove that nothing will shift. Each photo is unretouched, simply what the camera macro-lens found. (click to view at full screen)
I’d say that was near perfect clean of the grooves, leaving a band of vinyl land untouched immediately around the label (safety first).
Results of ultrasonic cleaning: A:B listening tests
Because of the danger of confirmation bias, A:B listening testing was conducted with an objective listening buddy, who had no investment in the machine. An afternoon was spent play-testing a variety of records – one never before cleaned, one twice cleaned with vacuum/alcohol cleaner, records known to have lots of surface noise, brand new vinyl, 20 year-old vinyl, sixty year old vinyl. Result? Every record sounded much improved comparing before and after ultrasonic cleaning. Not only further reduction in surface noise, but audible improvement in sound quality – lowered bass floor, more articulate mid-band and detail in highest frequencies.
There is no doubt ultrasonic cleaning does something that convention alcohol/ bath and vacuum cleaning does not do. That could be superior penetration to the very bottom of the groove, more effective removal of residual mould release, or just stuff welded in the groove that more aggressive cavitation shifts. I was surprised how much improvement occurred with background crackle, though not expected to be eliminated entirely.
It is not just “a record cleaning machine”, it is a hifi component, just as important as your amp or cartridge. If you think of spending £2k on an improved amplifier, high-end cables, or indeed on one rare record, you begin to see the Ultrasonic cleaner in proper perspective.
An ultrasonic machine is, I believe, an essential lifestyle accessory for a collector of vintage vinyl who has had most if not all his basic needs in life met, and is able to justify spoiling themselves with this beautiful and most effective record cleaning machine. The initial cost is not for the faint-hearted, but the results in my opinion justify it.
Next, for vacuum systems: Home recipe cleaner