If you are reading this article, chances are you’re a vinyl collector just like us. And whether it’s that hard-to-find private press northern soul 7" or your brand new limited edition reissue of an ABBA album on fluorescent green vinyl, you’ll want your records to be in pristine condition and enjoy the music on them without avoidable hissess, pops or crackle.
Read on to discover all the possible record cleaning solutions that were developed throughout the years, and for some tried and tested KollektivX tips to help you take care of your collection!
How the powder sets and “sticks” in the grooves of the discs
Dust easily settles in the grooves of vinyl records and is more difficult to remove than most people assume.
The 70s and 80s were the years that the music industry produced the most LPs and EPs. Not by chance, that was also the era when techniques and chemical laboratory research were being developed to solve the problem, only to be abandoned later on because of the fall in production of vinyl records and the advent of the CD.
We will talk about the most common methods used in the North American and British markets to avoid the harmful effects caused by the exposure of vinyl records to adverse environments., and we will also discuss the precautions you can take to correct the unpleasant noises in cases where record deterioration has already set in.
As the sensitivity of the phonograph’s phonocaptor capsules increases, any dust particles present in the grooves of the record produce hiss. If the surface of the record is not clean enough before the stylus touches the record, dust tends to accumulate on it through pressure and heat. Removing dust from the grooves of a record with full efficiency is a very difficult task. Elliptical needles, for example, working at a pressure of 1.1 grams, impose a pressure of 2.5 tons per square centimeter of the furrow, which produces a large amount of heat that is even perceptible if you’re near enough to the needle. To be exact, the groove of the record reaches a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius when traversed by a needle tracking at 1.3 grams. A temperature high enough to change the characteristics of the lubricants deposited on the vinyl record.
In general, the dust that settles on the discs is not related to the cleanliness of your house or apartment. All the air around us contains dust, which can be seen when we’re looking at the window on a sunny day, for example. All this dust tends to accumulate on any surface. In addition, vinyl-era discs (post-Acetate, older) are easily electrostatically charged, attracting dust from the air and the surfaces of nearby objects. This is more frequent in times or places with dry weather, where the relative humidity is below 50%.
Another important factor is smoke, whether from cooking food or from tobacco cigarettes. This smoke acts as glue, making dirt particles stick more tightly to vinyl records or other discs.
Interestingly, our breath can also act as glue to make dirt stick to the records. For example, when trying to gently blow visible particles from the surface of an LP, you’re actually doing more bad than good. Doing this, while eliminating the largest dust particles, causes the smaller (microscopic) ones to adhere to the grooves, causing the opposite effect of what we want.
Another source of dust that is often overlooked, is the disc’s protective cover. Often, when examining the surface of an LP, we come across dust deposits that apparently appeared “out of nowhere”. In fact, its origin is closer than you could imagine: the “protective” plastic itself, instead of protecting, caused the damage, transferring particles the cover was once exposed to, onto the record.
Microscopic examinations of disc grooves also reveal the presence of dust from the factory that produced them, at the time of their removal from the press. This is a result of the medium being transported throughout the factory and later on stored in a cardboard cover.
Now that we have discussed all the possible ways in which dust can get into the grooves of your records, let’s see what science at the time came up with to solve these problems, mainly because of the static they cause.
ZEROSTAT: The first solution to the problem, thought up in England
Earlier in the article, we discussed that dust and dirt can destroy both the groove of the record and the stylus. Keep in mind, however, that the real party pooper when it comes to ruining your listening pleasure, is actually the static that is produced as a result of that dust and dirt. Avoiding this static has, therefor, historically been the main focus of the industry.
To briefly explain: the needle on your record player reacts to a static charge in the same way that our hand does when it touches a metal door handle after passing an insulating surface: a small electrical discharge occurs.
This results in a series of small “skips”, audible through the speakers.
Until the early 1980s, there was no way to remove electrostatic charges from the disc’s surface, because conventional anti-static cleaners leave a thin chemical film, the effect of which is the opposite of what you want: it attracts even more dust.
In the United Kingdom, ZEROSTAT was developed, and greatly helped people who listened to records at home or played them professionally in clubs, radio stations or garage parties. ZEROSTAT is a device that, although it has a temporary effect, really works. Similar to a toy revolver with a large trigger, it is pointed at the center of the disc at a height of approximately 30 centimeters. The trigger is then slowly pulled until the static charge is removed. Depending on the amount, it was necessary to repeat the process for maximum efficiency, untill no noticeable traces of static were left.
The ZEROSTAT works with a piezoelectric element of high voltage (between 15 thousand and 20 thousand volts) while the trigger is kept under pressure. After releasing the trigger, with the element returning to the rest position, the air ionization occurs around the disk, in an arc shape.
Efficiency stems from the positive ions emanating from the needle with the trigger pulled, as opposed to the negative ions generated when it is released. The result is the neutralization of static charges on the surface of the disk, in a very fast process (about 20 seconds).
The equipment, obviously, must not be pointed at people or animals, and must be kept out of the reach of children.
Vinyl record cleaning fluids are generally mild detergents, or formulas containing alcohol diluted in different proportions. All have relative efficiency: if, on the one hand, they effectively clean the disk, on the other hand, they cause gradual damage to it. Consumers themselves have noticed, even before conclusive laboratory tests, that the mix of alcohol with detergents gradually deteriorates the grooves, ending up oxidizing them over time.
The useful life of the discs subjected to this type of cleaning, regardless of the alcohol concentration level, ends up corroding the grooves, as it deprives them of the necessary lubrication. In addition, the typical groove stabilizers themselves, vital to compensate for the high temperature conditions caused by needle contact, tend to impair the integrity of the vinyl, taking away the necessary smoothness from this interaction.
A slew of different brushes popped up in record stores in the early 1980s. Their simple, gentle, manual application never proved to be the most efficient, but they are still the most popular and least invasive method of cleaning vinyl records today, brushing over the medium in light, circular motions. In some radio stations in South America it was common, until the arrival of the CD era, to use a dry brush, followed by another one slightly moistened with ordinary water. After a few minutes, a third was used to remove the moisture and prevent the formation of mold on the records.
Finally, there was a North American set made up of a highly absorbent cotton brush on the back, and made up of very fine nylon bristles on the front face (the cleaner). A solution called D-II was to be applied to the disc and spread through the brush. The nylon fibers acted with a “capillary” action, causing the solution to rise through them, carrying away the residues to deposit them on the absorbent material of the brush. When the cotton started to turn slightly brown, the brush was washed with water to prevent the accumulated particles from being dumped on the next discs to be subjected to the same process. Of all the suggested cleaning solutions, this one seemed to be the most efficient.
All these methods abrubptly disappeared after the arrival of the CD, which made the vinyl industry economically unprofitable.
With the recent resurgence in vinyl culture, however, we find it important to remember some of these historical evolutions in how to take care of your record collection.
Now that we’ve talked a bit about the history and science behind keeping records clean and in optimal condition, here are some tips from the KollektivX team for shiny vinyl and always getting into the groove!
8 Tips for Cleaning and Caring for Vinyl Records
As mentioned earlier, there are several factors that can contribute to the deterioration of your collection. However, there are also several efficient ways to preserve them too. Here are our 8 tips for pristine playing pleasure:
Use A Carbon Fiber Brush
Always use a carbon fiber brush as your first step when cleaning your records. Brushing the grooves of your records with a carbon fiber brush not only clears the surface dust, but it also lowers the static electricity. When a record is anti-static, it repels dust and dirt, making it more difficult for those particles to settle into the grooves. You should clean your records with a carbon fiber brush on a regular basis, ideally before and after each use of the record, in order to keep them as clean as possible.
Wipe Down Your Records With a Microfiber Cloth
When you are cleaning your records it is important to be careful and use a microfiber cloth. It may be easy to just grab a t-shirt or towel and quickly wipe the record but using these types of materials could cause more damage to the vinyl. To clean your records, start by using a microfiber cloth and a small amount of your chosen cleaning fluid. Once you have wiped your records down with a cleaning solution, follow up by using a dry microfiber cloth to remove any remaining particles.
Invest in a Cleaning Machine
Cleaning machines are a bigger financial investment than other forms of cleaning. However, if you have a large record collection, it may be worth the extra cost. When it comes to record cleaning machines, there are two well-known and effective options.
Vacuum cleaning: A dry cleaning method that uses suction to remove dust, dirt, and small debris particles from your record’s grooves.
Spin cleaning: A wet method of cleaning where the cleaning fluid is diluted and used to clean the dust, dirt, and other small debris from the grooves of your record.
Storing Records in Your Vinyl Collection
Once your records are clean, you have two choices. You can either listen to them on your vinyl record player, or store them away for another day.
As for the latter, there are steps you should take in order to store your records away properly and preserve your collection. When it comes to storing your records properly, consider the following tips:
Use Inner Sleeves
When storing your records, first and foremost, you will want to make sure that you are protecting the vinyl. To do this, use inner sleeves, which act as a safeguard between the jacket and the record.
The most common inner sleeves include paper, poly, and paper with poly lining. While the sleeves that have poly built-in help reduce static, the decision on which to use really comes down to personal preference.
Store Your Records Vertically
One of the most common ways records become warped and unusable is by storing them horizontally and stacking them on top of one another.
Records that are stacked on top of one another can become bent and distorted over time from the weight and pressure. Depending on the degree of distortion, this can be difficult to fix.
One way to avoid having your records bend over time, is to store them vertically. This can be done by using record crates, bookshelves, or whichever storage medium can do the trick. By storing your records upright, you won’t have to worry about them warping or becoming damaged.
Do not keep them in direct sunlight
To keep your records from becoming warped, keep them out of direct sunlight. Extreme temperatures from extended sun exposure not only distort your records, but also fade the artwork on your record’s sleeve. Your record collection will look nicer and last longer if you store them in an area away from sunlight and other sources of heat and moisture.
Handle your vinyl properly
Be careful when handling the disc. Always hold by the label or edges, and prevent touching the record with your fingertips to avoid getting dirt and grease in the grooves.
You can’t eliminate every possible risk to your records, but by following this simple vinyl record cleaning and maintenance routine, you are certainly taking care of your record collection in the best possible way.
Enjoy your collection, and happy listening!
Discover more great grooves and help preserve our global musical heritage at www.kollektivx.com.