Having cleaned more records than I’ve had hot dinners, I somehow believe I am in the privileged position to pontificate on the worst ways to do this. I have only tried a couple of the following methods….I promise! The list runs from least to most naff.
5. The Bath Method
The Knosti Disco Antistat is the most famous example of this breed. Essentially, you pour a relatively large quantity of record cleaning fluid into an elliptical “bath” shaped tray. The tray is equipped with brushes – think of the left and right brushes of a carwash. The record is screwed (via its paper label) into two clamps and these are hooked over the tray, so that the record is sandwiched in between the brushes. The record is then rotated by hand so that it becomes coated in the fluid and receives a scrub. You then unscrew the record, and place it vertically into a drying rack (think of a washing up drying rack.) Drying it vertically ensures that no more dust is attracted to your record, but it will take at least 40-45 mins to dry (far longer than the 20 minute claim in the literature), and playing a record that’s even a tiny bit wet can ruin an expensive stylus. On the plus side, the literature does warn against using any kind of cloth to wipe dry a wet record.
I actually would recommend this method for casual listeners of vinyl with small-to-modest sized collections. The actual kit is relatively cheap, and it works fairly well. However, its effectiveness relies on an understandable misconception – in that the brushes actually clean the record, when in fact they don’t. The grooves on a record are finer than a human hair, and no brush could even hope to penetrate them. It is the fluid that needs to penetrate the grooves. Being as how the record is cleaned vertically, most of the fluid is actually falling off the record and back into the bath, and not getting to the areas where it’s most needed. Its then put to dry, again standing on its edge, where the fluid is allowed to evaporate. Thus it can only really claim to clear the record of surface dirt and fingerprints, and any dirt residing in the grooves stays resolutely put. Indeed, I used this method for a good few years, and it wasn’t unknown for my dear Goldring 1042 cartridge/stylus to pick up far more dirt that the Antistat had only loosened, and for sound quality to deteriorate, and the arm to go flying across the record because the needle had picked up so much fluff. A record is easily and relatively cheaply replaced – a stylus isn’t.
There are also economic considerations. A bottle of record cleaning fluid that half deserves the title costs around £20 GBP per litre. The bath method requires 250-300ml of this to be used at a time, whether you are cleaning one record or several. The kit contains a funnel and a set of filters so that leftover fluid can be poured into a second, clean bottle and re-used. But that leftover fluid is still contaminated, even after cleaning only one record. So a litre of fluid can clean around 100 sides (50 12in or 7in records – doesn’t matter, in fact 7in records need more fluid rather than less…) before another bottle is needed. Therefore whilst the initial outlay of the kit is cheap, once a collection expands over a certain size, the amount of cleaning fluid required to keep it all clean can mean that the bath method soon becomes a false economy. By contrast, 250ml of the same fluid, when used on a vacuum system, such as the Moth, can clean at least 70 – 80 sides (35-40 records).
4. Over-elaborate, ritualistic cleaning or cleaning a record more times than necessary
Two cleans with an isopropyl alcohol based fluid, and then a once over with L’Art du Son, anybody? Sounds like real fun! I wonder if anyone ever told these super-nerds that their Diana Krall LP’s would be just as clean and playable with just a quick spin on the Moth and a few drops of isopropyl alcohol? Also, I would suggest that once a year would be enough to clean a well-played treasure, and less often for those that spend less time on the turntable. The hi-fi hobby is about playing and enjoying music, not cleaning it! Get down to those charity shops and find some great records instead!
3. Home made fluids
Not that I have anything against someone who can lay their hands cheaply on some distilled (not tap/faucet!) water and 70%+ proof isopropyl alcohol and mixes a 3 part water, 1 part alcohol-based solution. It’s when so-called experts (read “YouTubers”) start telling you to add household cleaning detergents that things become somewhat dangerous.
PVA glue is fabulous, especially if you have a gang of kids around a table making spaceships out of squeezy bottles, cornflake packets and tin-foil tubes. But not for cleaning records. In theory, it SHOULD work very well, since it dries into a plastic-like film, which can then be peeled off, taking 20 years’-worth of dust along with it. But:
a) The resultant PVA disc contains a mirror imprint of the grooves on the record it was cleaning. It is all too tempting to try playing this piece of glue on one’s record player. Nooooooooo…..!!!
b) It takes one heck of a long time to dry, and then you can only clean one side at a time. It’s also very messy, and expensive.
c) A tiny speck of sticky glue, small enough to avoid detection by the human eye, could be nestling in those grooves, ready to pounce on your lovely Ortofon Cadenza stylus and ruin it.
1. Any method that relies on using a cloth to wipe a record clean (or dry)
Er…..helloooo, I thought we were supposed to be getting dust OUT of the record, not pushing it further IN?!?
So, I believe the only method of cleaning a record effectively is by the vacuum method. These machines resemble a somewhat Heath Robinson attempt at a turntable, except that where one would normally expect a tonearm, there is what can only be described as a hoover attachment. The record is placed on the “platter” and set in motion. A few drops of fluid (either isopropyl-based or the aforementioned L’Art du Son) are squirted onto the revolving disc, and spread around with a soft brush, so that it forms a film of fluid on the surface of the record. This is then vacuumed away, along with 20 years’-worth of dust, and the process is repeated on the other side of the record. The end result is a clean, dry record that uses an nth of the fluid required by the bath method, that sounds a bit clearer and more detailed than it did before it was cleaned, and most importantly, it won’t contain stylus damaging dirt.
The drawback of these machines is that even the cheapest of them will cost more than a budget hi-fi turntable, but their effectiveness, longevity and frugality make them well worth the initial investment, particularly for those with expensive turntable/cartridge configurations and large collections of records.
Mark Pearce, March 2017