Listening is Only Part of the Vinyl Experience...
Lautlos Rein Record Cleaning Machine - State of the art? Country of the Art?
Planet of the Art? Galaxy of the Art? It sure is shiny!

There's Also the Care and Feeding of Those Vinyl Records
Last issue we talked about the small but significant resurgence of vinyl records in the high performance audio community. A downside of record technology is their tendency to be degraded by contaminants. Dust, dirt, skin oils from handling and more all can play a role in producing clicks, pops, and background noise. Fortunately, vinyl records can be cleaned fairly easily. But, as our research has shown, you have to know what you're doing to avoid the pitfalls that can arise from the cleaning process. Particulate matter left in the groves is of special concern because the tiny stylus contact area results in dramatic pressure on the groove walls. Actually, the stylus exerts in excess of 300 pounds per square inch of pressure while playing a record! This is surely enough to damage any record groove (see some research results on the topic at the end of this article).

The stylus also generates significant heat while playing a record and the combination of heat and pressure can do significant damage. Physical damage can include groove deformation, reduction of high frequencies and impact pressure embedding debris into the groove walls. All this means you want to follow the cartridge manufacturer's guidelines and set the tracking force as low as possible without mis-tracking or distortion evident in playback. And you want to keep your records meticulously clean as any debris in the groves becomes a weapon that the stylus uses as a battering ram or embeds it in the groove wall.

Several Cleaning Possibilities

If you Google "record cleaning" you'll find 165,000,000 results. Buried within are thousands of recommendations and stories concerning how to clean your precious records. Unfortunately, as with everything else on the Internet, thousands of conflicting opinions can make your head spin (we assume at 33-1/3 RPM). We've evaluated and researched quite a bit and have developed some safe and simple suggestions on the care and feeding of vinyl records. But first a list of more common methods, some good and some questionable:
Some of the More Common Methods of Cleaning Vinyl Records:
  • Hand washing in the sink with soap and water - Never do this as the water is not pure enough and the soap will leave sticky residue deep in the grooves. And water alone cannot flow into the grooves.
  • Wood glue method (Honest. No, really!) - This appears to have some merit but is time consuming, potentially messy and difficult to get exactly right.
  • Various felt and brush disc cleaners with and without cleaning fluid - Lots of these are available from your local dealer or other sources. They work fairly well and will last a long time. Keep them clean by using another brush, not your hands. They can't clean as deeply as a quality record cleaning machine, even a manual one without vacuum, but they're good for day to day clean ups before and after play. Carbon fiber bristle brushes are quite effective for both dust removal and anti-static.
  • Different types of alcohol cleaning solutions using a brush or rag (drug store isopropyl, filtered, denatured, medical grade, etc.). Most experts say to avoid isopropyl and drug store alcohol other than for a quick cleanup of a oily spot as it removes plasticizers from the vinyl that leaves it brittle and more prone to damage.
  • Manual record cleaning "machines" using a cleaning fluid.
  • Automated record cleaning machines including those with built-in vacuum systems.
General  Recommendations

A limited scan of articles on the internet shows an endless array of conflicting recommendations and stories. We wouldn't be surprised to see articles like; "How I cleaned my records using sulfuric acid", or "I clean my records by dipping them for 3 seconds in boiling water". (Don't do either.) But there do seem to be some consistent recommendations:
  • Limit or eliminate the use of alcohol. Several available cleaning potions contain small amounts of alcohol and are highly regarded. If the ingredients are not available for the fluid you're looking at, don't buy it. If you use one that contains alcohol make sure the alcohol content is low and if you can, find out what kind of alcohol is used. 
  • The best method to deep clean records is using a record cleaning machine that includes vacuum removal. If you have a large vinyl collection it makes sense to look into an one of these but good ones can be pretty expensive. Figure on $350 to $400 as a starting price range. For smaller collections there are a few manual "spin and clean" units that don't have vacuum ability but work reasonably well and start at under a hundred dollars. 
  • Always handle records only by the edge and label, never the groove surfaces. 
  • Get and use a velvet and/or static reducing brush every time you play or before you clean a record - There are many variations of these available. The Discwasher is probably the most well-known variation. Also combo units like the Hunt EDA carbon fiber/velvet unit are well regarded as are the Audioquest anti-static LP brush.
  • You'll need an anti-static device if you don't get a combo brush. The Zero-Stat is considered the traditional standard of this class of device. 
  • Don't place an uncleaned record on your turntable and clean one side and then the other. There are record cleaning mats available for this purpose. Consider getting 2, one for the initial "dirty side" cleaning and one for after the first side has been cleaned. 
  • Soft, clean microfiber cloths are good for cleaning records too. Although not perfect, their small fibers can get down part-way into the record groves. 
  • Store your records vertically and not tilted at much of an angle. Face the internal paper sleeve up and not towards the jacket opening. If the original internal sleeve is gone or damaged, replacement, higher quality types can be purchased from multiple sources including record stores or on-line.
  • There are a number of "after cleaning" fluids that can be applied to records in hopes of preserving them and the cleaning job. Most do more harm than good. The only one that truly works, was developed by chemical engineers and has a near 40 year history to back it up, is LAST #2 preservative. It isn't a coating, rather, it bonds to the vinyl on a molecular level, strengthening it and making it less susceptible to damage. It addresses what was found in the Shure tests that are described below.
Here's some information gleaned from an Audio Magazine article on the subject of record wear from September 1980:
  • Even the unplayed record showed signs of surface imperfections, e.g. holes.
  • After playing with a Shure MM cartridge: microscope shows audible loss of quality. Pieces of vinyl have come off the surface. Distinct wear lines can be seen parallel to the groove. The type of damage caused is termed surface conchoidal fracture, resembling broken of shattered glass. The groove surface resembles glass surfaces being chipped by fine sand.
  • Another record shows enormous damage after 50 plays, showing the same type of damage and many longitudinal wear lines.
  • After playing with a MC cartridge: tearing and gouging wear is predominant.
All styli present pressures of 30.000 to 69.000 psi with a VTF of 1 gr. These high pressures have led people to assume that permanent  plastic   deformation occurs, the yield point of the vinyl being 14.500 psi. It appears that no solution exists for the plastic range, especially for sliding indentation with friction.
The study found that the quality of the vinyl plays an important role as far as sound quality is concerned. In particular the filler material used is of great importance, it seems that it has tendency to split off. Dust in the groove is pushed and pounded into the groove wall, scouring and gouging the wall.

Below are few examples of the range of record cleaning products on the market...

A Record Cleaning Platform

A Sticky Record Cleaning Roller

Carbon Fiber Record Brush

A Manual Record "Bath" Cleaner

A Very Expensive Automated Record Cleaning Machine
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