I’ve been amassing a record collection for years and consequently my collection has grown to significant proportions. Many of the records hold value (both monetary and sentimental) and therefore it is of crucial importance that they remain in the best possible condition. Not being someone who buys records simply for show, this involves taking appropriate care of the records both during storage and playback. In this post I hope to share some advice as well as some tips I’ve learned along the way to help you prolong the life of your records.
It goes without saying that a record collection can consume a significant amount of space. And not only are the records themselves extremely fragile, the covers and sleeves are too so proper storage is a must. Records should be stored vertically and in a position that prevents them leaning to one side. Stacking records can exert pressure on the lower records which causes damage to the grooves and causes the records to warp.
Naturally, shelving is the best method for storage (space permitting). Off-the-shelf cube units such as Ikea’s KALLAX series are perfectly suited to the storage of vinyl as their cubes can hold a decent number of 12” LPs yet not so many that the weight of the records causes warping or cover ware. Naturally DIY shelving is an option, though it’s important to ensure that both the material used and the wall or floor on which the shelving will be mounted or stood can support the weight of whatever quantity of vinyl the shelves can hold, with each cube of albums weighing anywhere from 12 to 20KG.
Record cases are a great option for those who lack sufficient space for shelves or who regularly transport their collection. Cases can range from flat-packed cardboard storage boxes such as this Pack of 5 Cardboard Storage or Archive Boxes for 12″ Vinyl or this Pack of 5 Storage Boxes for 7″ Singles. The boxes can hold roughly 50LPs in each 12” box, or roughly 200 7” singles in a 7” box depending on sleeve thickness. They’re great for archiving rarely played records or for keeping a selection of regular albums next to the turntable.
That said, they won’t stand up to years of heavy use or transportation. If you regularly transport your records or regularly play everything in your collection, hard cases are your best option. They tend to be a little on the expensive side and the quality of some of the cheaper models from the likes of GPO leaves a lot to be desired.
These MDF storage boxes can hold approximately 100 12″ LPs and singles (depending on the cover thickness and sleeves being used) and can be used in box form or stacked to form a cube shelving unit. If you’d rather your collection were more portable, These cases from Covers33 are one of the cheapest options.
Cleaning records is of vinyl importance. Due to the heat caused by the friction of a stylus tracking a vinyl groove, dirt and other contaminants can become permanently embedded in the grooves during repeated playback if not removed. Brand new records should also be cleaned, as they often arrive from the factory with a healthy layer of dirt and are also covered in a layer of mould release compound, designed to prevent the record sticking to the stamper during production. Such compounds not only degrade the sound but are prone to static and are a magnet for dirt.
Naturally there are a few methods for cleaning records, not to mention a wealth of information (and misinformation) online concerning various cleaning methods and cleaning fluids. Wet cleaning methods that rely on air or microfibre cloths to dry the record (such as the Knosti or Spin Clean machines) tend not to work particularly well, and neither do the many spray cleaners littering the market. These cleaning methods leave behind residues on the vinyl surface and often only serve to move the dirt around rather than removing it completely. The deposits they leave can also cause damage to the delicate stylus during playback, often degrade the sound of the vinyl and can also become baked into the grooves as the stylus heats up the vinyl. A record should never be played wet under any circumstances, therefore such methods should be avoided at all costs.
Vacuum cleaning machines are far more effective. There are many such machines on the market, ranging from the sensibly priced to the astronomically expensive; but they’re all based on a similar principle. Fluid is applied to a record, at which point the record is rotated and brushed into the grooves. The fluid enters the grooves dissolving any contaminants at which point is is lifted from the vinyl by a vacuum, thus resulting in a clean record.
The recently reviewed Pro-Ject VC-S, priced at just shy of £300, is one of the most economical machines on the market, and is every bit as good as the expensive models. While £300 is certainly a significant investment for the average vinyl fan, when compared to the cost involved in replacing the average record collection it’s not unreasonable when you consider that just 20 brand new LPs priced at the average going rate of £15 each will set you back the same amount.
Where cleaning fluids are concerned, there are a huge number of options. Some fluids, such as Pro-Ject’s own Wash It and the popular Moth cleaning fluid utilise alcohol as their primary cleaning component. A typical cleaning fluid contains 3 components – water (obviously), a cleaning component such as alcohol and a surfactant or ‘wetting agent’ without which the fluid can’t penetrate the vinyl grooves due to the surface tension of water.
Home brew methods typically mix isopropyl alcohol with distilled water at a ratio of 20% alcohol to 80% water with a tiny amount of wetting agent. This method is cheap, though the components must be sourced online as 99.9% pure isopropyl alcohol isn’t sold over the counter and pure distilled water, not to mention wetting agent, is difficult to come by in the shops. If you’d rather save time, my favourite commercial cleaning product is the Moth cleaning fluid priced at £20 per litre.
The best DIY cleaning recipe I have found is that from the London Jazz Collector. It mixes 1 part isopropyl to 4 parts distilled water with a teaspoon of wetting agent and makes 5 litres of solution which is enough to keep you going for years. The generous folks over at Distilled Water Supplies are offering 15% off their pure distilled water when you use the coupon code AudioAppraisal.
Contrary to popular belief an alcohol-based cleaning fluid will not harm vinyl if used sparingly, and it’s a component used in most commercial fluids as it evaporates extremely quickly and doesn’t leave a residue. That said it’s not suitable for use on 78s, with which an alcohol-free fluid must be used. Many commercial fluid venders offer an alternative to their alcohol-based cleaners for cleaning 78s, such as Pro-Ject’s Wash It 78.
Once cleaned, the records should be placed into new inner sleeves to prevent any contamination from the old sleeve being transferred to the clean record. Polythene sleeves should be used, the packs from Covers33 currently being the best deal going in the UK. Cheap paper sleeves as supplied with many records should be avoided at all costs because they are abrasive and can scratch the vinyl surface. Cardboard sleeves should be avoided for the same reason, as should the glossy printed cardboard sleeves which tend to stick to the record surface and cause static buildup.
With the record in a proper sleeve, it should be slid into the cover on its side so as to not leave an opening through which dust can enter. There’s usually enough room inside the typical record cover to slide the original inner sleeve beside it, and keeping those original inners will help your records retain their value.
Finally, the covers should be placed inside a plastic outer sleeve. Such sleeves prevent damage to the artwork, help to protect the edges of the cover and make sliding the records in and out of shelving or boxes much easier. The heavy gauge, 400G polythene covers should be avoided as over time they stick to the cover surface, ripping the artwork from the cover when they’re removed. Instead the 250G sleeves should be used. This Pack of 100 is currently the best deal going in the UK at least, but they’re also available from Covers33 at excellent prices. These are roomy enough to house gatefold covers, which can be slid from the sleeve when you want to open them to look at the artwork. 250G Gatefold sleeves are difficult to find and are for some reason astronomically expensive.
It is important when a record is played back that it is presented as flat as possible to the stylus. Several devices known as record clamps exist to secure the record to the platter by clamping over the spindle and pressing down on the centre of the record. Some feature a locking mechanism which grips the spindle to hold the record to the platter. Some known as record weights rely on gravity to press the centre of the record to the platter, though they can exert undue strain on the turntable’s main bearing and can upset the flywheel affect incorporated into the design of some platters and depending on the design of your turntable should be avoided.
Some records with minor warps can be flattened by placing them beneath a flat weight for an extended period of time. Placing the record in an inner sleeve, on a flat surface beneath a stack of magazines has worked for me; not to mention it provides a use for those commercial hi-fi magazines.
Of course, care of your records means nothing if the equipment used to play them back is not well maintained or is liable to cause them damage. A turntable consists of a few key components – the arm (more commonly known as the tonearm), the cartridge to which the stylus (or needle) is attached, and the main bearing on which the platter spins.
Contrary to popular belief, not all styli have a perfectly rounded tip. This was once the case, when technology and machinery didn’t offer the precision required to shape a diamond into anything other than a sphere. However in the last 40 years, a number of stylus shapes have emerged, more accurately representing the shape of the record groove, and thus able to sit deeper in the groove, picking up more information and causing less record wear.
These days spherical or conical styli are found on nothing but the lowest end turntables and cartridges, as they offer the least playback performance and cause the most record ware. Any worthy budget turntable will feature at least an elliptical stylus, with the styli becoming more advanced the higher up the turntable ladder you move.
In order for a stylus to trace a record groove without skipping and skating over the record surface, the correct downward tracking pressure, commonly known as tracking force, vertical tracking force or VTF must be applied. Any worthwhile turntable will have a means to adjust the tracking weight, usually via a moving counterweight at the rear of the arm or in some very rare cases via a dial found somewhere on the tonearm. Any decent tonearm will also offer a control for anti-skating or biasing, to counteract the natural centripetal force generated as a stylus tracks the spiralling record groove towards the centre of a record. The level of anti-skating should usually match the tracking force, though as the level of force requires differs minutely at various points across the record surface any value is a compromise.
The 1 exception is the turntables that utilise a P Mount or T4P type cartridge, such as many of the models manufactured by Technics and Panasonic. The tracking force and bias compensation on these turntables are both preset to 1.25 grams which is perfectly safe and will not harm your vinyl. Such turntables can usually be identified as their labelling will state that they use a ‘P Mount’ or ‘Plug In’ cartridge, or via small screw located on the side of the cartridge, usually on the right-hand side.
Many of the mass-market budget turntables such as those made by Crosley do not feature such adjustments. These turntables all utilise a cheap cartridge with a conical stylus and due to their design there is in most cases no adjustment for tracking pressure. Worse, these turntables have no form of fixed counterweight resulting in the full weight of the cartridge being exerted on the stylus as it traces the vinyl groove. That’s usually 7.5 to 8 grams, twice the amount that those cartridges are specified to track at and far more than is safe for vinyl.
This coupled with the poorly made styli means that such turntables will cause irreparable damage to the grooves of your treasured vinyl often after just the first play. They also contain no method for anti-skating, meaning that as they track towards the centre of the record the damage they cause will be greater on the left side of the record groove. These turntables should be avoided in every case. The cost involved in replacing your vinyl, which often you cannot put a price on far outweighs the initial low cost of such a turntable.
For record playback there is no better solution than a component-style turntable, some of which feature a built-in phono preamplifier meaning they can be connected to a pair of powered speakers such as a pair of computer speakers which will be more than good enough to get you started. Audio-Technica’s AT-LP120 is 1 such turntable. It’s primarily intended as a DJ deck and is a clone of the legendary Technics 1200. It features a decent tonearm, a direct-drive motor and comes supplied with the renowned AT95E cartridge which features an elliptical stylus and tracks at a very gentle 2 grams.
If you don’t mind spending a bit more for better quality, Rega’s RP1 performance pack and RP3 (soon to be replaced by the Planar 3) both offer simple setup and exceptional performance for the money, though you’ll need an external phono stage. If you’re not sure what a phono stage is, I covered the topic extensively in my Hi-fi for Beginners series. That series also goes into greater detail with regards the components involved in vinyl replay.
Vinyl records are often thought of as a complex medium, but they really don’t have to be. Ask anybody who’s last memories of vinyl are from its heyday in the 60s 70s and 80s and they’ll tell you stories of pops, clicks, crackles and skipping. But if you follow this guide, that needn’t be the case either. If you take appropriate care of your records during storage and playback they’ll last for generations to come. Happy spinning.