Keeping your records clean is not only good for the discs themselves but helps to reduce premature wear caused to your playback equipment. Not to mention the gains in sound quality which can be drastic if the records are particularly soiled. It is often said that a cleaning machine is itself a worthwhile system upgrade, and having heard the effects for myself over the last few years I would not disagree. The market is awash with machines, fluids, cloths, brushes and a plethora of other products designed to assist in the task of cleaning up a collection, and a quick scour of the ‘net will reveal a vast range of homebrew recipes too, some of them plausible and some downright daft but all of them fiercely debated.
While there is certainly debate as to the virtues of machines and methods, by far the most often debated aspect of record cleaning is the fluid used, with a vast array of fluids to choose from both commercial and DIY. A great many of them use isopropyl alcohol as their active ingredient, mixed with distilled water with a surfactant to break up the surface tension of the water to enable the fluid to better penetrate the groove. Alcohol has been used to clean records for decades, but some claim that it can leach the plasticisers from the vinyl, causing the records to become brittle over time. Alcohol is also not safe for use on Shellac or flexy discs, and some say that fluids with high alcohol content can damage Styrene pressings too. Thus a range of non alcohol formulas exist, including a number of enzymatic cleaners, some based on plant extract and still others with a close resemblance to dish washing detergent, though usually with a chemical formula optimised for the cleaning of vinyl records.
I don’t recommend many of the homebrew solutions, many of which involve a sink of warm water and some fairy liquid. Not only can this do catastrophic damage to your record labels be it immediately or over time, but there is no guarantee as to the long term effects of those solutions on your vinyl. Besides a brush or cloth and a sink of water with a high surface tension won’t penetrate the deepest areas of the groove where the problematic dirt lies, so you will likely end up with records that look great on the surface but still pop, crackle and contaminate your stylus with crud as much as they did before if not more.
How I Clean Records
I personally use Pro-Ject’s Wash It fluid in its latest, non alcohol form. I have previously tried many alcohol-based fluids including the original Wash It, Moth, Knosti and Tonar among others, and fluids including L’Art Du Son and those from VPI, Nitty Gritty, Keith Monks and Mobile Fidelity, all of which are alcohol free. While some did offer better cleaning performance than others I never found the differences to be night and day despite using some high end cleaning machines. I had however read many claims that an alcohol based fluid could alter the sonic signature of the vinyl, particularly making the top end shrill and losing that analogue ‘warmth’ for which vinyl is so widely praised. I wanted to see whether this claim is true, and to compare an alcohol based fluid directly against a non alcohol formula to see if there really is a significant difference in cleaning performance.
I clean my records on a Pro-Ject VC-S which in my opinion is currently one of the best value for money record vacuums on the market with exceptional cleaning performance. I am hesitant to own one of the increasingly popular ultrasonic machines, as there is a great deal of debate as to the effects of cavitation on vinyl, and many contradictory claims made by various manufacturers with limited conclusive scientific evidence published. The machines are still hugely expensive, and while yes, they do perform well, I don’t think the small performance gain justifies an average price of approximately 10 times that of a VC-S.
Barry Ratcliffe of Vinyl Shelter is an ex band manager, a passionate music fan, record collector and record shop proprietor. Vinyl shelter record cleaning fluid was developed in 2014 and the formula uses isopropyl alcohol as its active ingredient, with an unspecified surfactant to break up surface tension and anti-static properties. It is delivered ready mixed with no dilution necessary and is marketed primarily toward users of the £50 Knosti Disco Antistat, a manual cleaning machine which brushes the dirt from a record in a fluid bath at which point they are air dried in a rack. For manual cleaning, Barry recommends cotton wool pads or cotton buds as opposed to microfibre cloths. The fluid claims to leave no residue and Barry is keen to defend the use of IPA in cleaning fluid, stating that it is completely safe for use on vinyl records. Barry’s Knosti machine has cleaned 8000+ records, which he sells through his store in the Discogs marketplace with audio samples available for your perusal.
Vinyl Shelter fluid is available in 500 ML, 1L, 2.5L and 5L sizes with spray trigger bottles also available. Pro-Ject’s Wash It concentrate is available in 100ML, 250ML, 500ML and 1L sizes, to be diluted at a ratio of 10:1, to 20:1 with distilled water depending on the level of record contamination. I dilute mine at a ratio of 10:1 which I have found to produce the best results, making plenty of fluid with excellent cleaning performance. A one litre bottle of Wash It concentrate costs £40, with 10 litres of distilled water coming in at £15, give or take, or less if you buy in bulk. Five litres of Vinyl Shelter fluid costs £37.50, making it more expensive than Wash it for the equivalent quantity of mixed fluid; totalling approximately £82.50 for 11 litres.
Mixing an alcohol-based fluid yourself is significantly cheaper, but comes with the added complication of trial and error especially with regards selecting an appropriate wetting agent / surfactant of which there are many suitable products, but very little guidance as to the correct amount to be used and no guarantee as to whether they are vinyl safe. Vinyl Shelter cleaning fluid is among the most cost-effective pre-mixed alcohol-based fluid available when taking into account the prices for equivalent quantities from other manufacturers.
Both fluids were put to the test using the same VC-S machine with separate Pro-Ject goats hair brushes used to avoid cross contamination. An amount of fluid was applied to each record such that the record was evenly coated, with enough fluid on the surface to suspend any contaminants. The fluid was brushed onto the record following the grooves with the record spinning in a clockwise direction. The fluids were allowed to sit on the record for 45 seconds to dissolve any contaminants, and then vacuumed for 5 rotations which was plenty to achieve a completely dry record while avoiding any possible chance of a static charge from excessive vacuuming. Both fluids were stored in the same room which is moderately warm in the summer heat but stable in temperature, and both fluids were shaken a few minutes before use to ensure the ingredients were mixed.
All records were played using my AT33PTG/II cartridge which has a tiny microline stylus, one of the smallest and most precisely cut stylus profiles available today. It is meticulously setup, only ever touches clean records and is itself cleaned regularly with a Vinyl Passion DustBuster. This is one of the best cartridges in my opinion to evaluate the performance of any cleaning apparatus or fluid, as it reaches deep into the groove and will dig up any dirt that the fluid doesn’t remove.
I started with the special edition of Sam Smith’s ‘The Thrill of It All’ pressed across two white vinyl. I clean every new record on arrival as they often arrive with a healthy static charge and some free dust, often thanks to paper or card sleeves. This was indeed the case here. Both records were cleaned with the Vinyl Shelter fluid before being placed into fresh poly lined sleeves. When played the records were super quiet, crystal clear and with almost no surface noise to speak of, including an almost complete absence of clicks and pops. The static charge too had completely disappeared.
The record did however have some noise present on the beginning of side two. There was nothing on the record surface, but a persistent and obvious pop through the beginning of the first track. I returned the record to the VC-S and cleaned just that side with Pro-Ject Wash It fluid. Returning to the turntable the pops had significantly reduced (though were not eliminated), the sonic signature of the record was identical, and levels of surface noise were otherwise unchanged.
The next record was ‘Unguarded’ by Rae Morris. This LP was first cleaned with Pro-Ject Wash It on both sides. Side two was quiet with minimal crackle and no excessive surface noise. Side 1 was noisy with a persistent pop through several tracks, and investigation revealed some contaminant stuck to the record surface and in the grooves. A large lump was removed and both sides of the record were cleaned with the Vinyl Shelter fluid, which did dissolve the remaining contaminant. Again the surface noise didn’t change dramatically and neither did the sonics, but the record is now quiet without that persistent snap, crackle and pop through the first side, and is a far more pleasant listen. A second clean with Wash It may have improved matters, but it is clear that the Vinyl Shelter fluid did dissolve some contaminants that Wash It didn’t get on the first go.
Emeli Sandé’s ‘Live At The Royal Albert Hall’ was a record store day release from 2017. While this is a fairly decent recording it is a bright lP, as is the digital release. My pressing also had a persistent pop on side two. This LP was cleaned on purchase with Wash It which did clean it up but didn’t have any effect on its persistent crackle. The LP was given a thorough clean with the Vinyl Shelter fluid, which did improve matters though it didn’t eradicate the noise completely. More importantly however it did not change the sonic signature. It certainly didn’t make the LP sound harsh, brittle or any brighter than it already did, as any excessive brightness on this LP would be immediately noticeable and would have made the record a difficult listen.
Finally to a well used record with plenty of dirt. A filthy copy of Jim Steinman’s ‘Bad for Good’ was cleaned on side A with Vinyl Shelter and side B with Pro-Ject’s Wash It. The record had no physical damage, only dirt, grime, grease and fingermarks, and appeared the same on either side after cleaning. The sound across both sides was identical too, with no difference in overall sonic signature and low noise levels that sounded identical to my ear, and any measurable difference would likely have been down to the pressing, not the cleaning fluid. The record was also entirely free from static and almost entirely free from clicks and pops.
Vinyl Shelter fluid is primarily designed to be used with a Knosti machine, while Wash It is aimed more towards vacuum machine users as it evaporates far more slowly than IPA which is extremely quick to dry. During our communication Barry suggested comparing a Knosti using the Vinyl Shelter fluid to a high end vacuum machine using any other fluid. While I cannot claim to be a huge fan of those manual machines unless on a budget or where cleaning a small collection, and suspect the vacuum machine may still win, I do admire Barry’s belief in his product and would be happy to be proven wrong. I no-longer have a Knosti machine but if I can obtain another this is a test that you can expect to see in the future.
To summarise, this was an interesting test and one that proved, to my mind, that there really is very little difference between an alcohol-based cleaning solution and one based on a non alcohol formula. It also suggests that while certain fluids may perform better than others, there should be little difference between well developed fluids that are properly formulated for their intended application. While we only tested two fluids here, the results did not conclusively prove that one fluid was vastly superior to the other.
Vinyl Shelter offer an excellent cleaning product, perfectly suited to the cleaning of vinyl records. It did an admirable job cleaning our test samples, producing records that are free from contamination and sounding as best they can. Most importantly it did not affect the sound of the records in the way that alcohol is sometimes claimed to do. Whether an alcohol-based fluid is right for a collection is a choice the collector must make, but where an alcohol-based fluid is preferred Vinyl Shelter’s offering is highly recommended.