A few weekends ago I was at a record shop here in NYC and a remarkable thing happened: I found the exact record I was looking for. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you ever hunt in the used record bins you’ll know that it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Anyway, the record was Weather Report’s 1979 double LP “8:30”. The price was right and the condition was NM (“near-mint” for you non-nerds); the only thing was that the vinyl was smudged with some pretty nasty fingerprints.
I’ve been playing vinyl since I was a kid (with a furlough through the 90s) but I haven’t had to do any heavy-duty record cleaning myself; occasionally I’ll bring a record into a shop and pay a couple bucks to have the record cleaned on a machine. But the fingerprints looked like a fairly simple job, so I thought I’d investigate some of online manual cleaning recommendations I’ve read over the years. I’m not talking about the solution-and-microfiber-brush combo for dust and light dirt — I meant to get involved in some water and soap.
Here’s what I gleaned from some online sources. Use distilled water to clean records. Some sites get crazy talking about super-duper distilled water. But that’s not for me — it would have to be plain old once-distilled water. As far as the solvent, there are some nutty ideas out there, but the one that kept coming up and seemed the safest bet was a drop of Ivory dishwashing detergent in a lot of water. But in case you’re rolling up your sleeves, I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to go into record cleaning techniques or particulars here — you can find lots of info about that online. What I DO want to share with you is the following.
Working at Masterdisk I’m exposed not only to lots of cool stuff, but there’s also a wealth of expert audio experience walking the halls. And who better to ask about vinyl than Scott Hull? (who is, believe me, extremely knowledgeable about how records are made, played and preserved). Here’s what he told me when I asked him about cleaning records.
“I’ve got to emphasize: use very little soap! Too much soap makes a mess, can wreck the label, and doesn’t help clean anyway. You only need a drop of non-foaming soap to create a tiny surface tension in the water. And very little water is needed. A bristle brush, like a clean toothbrush, can help with super dirty records. I’ve seen dirty old pressings improve from double cleaning. But even new records benefit from a cleaning. It probably reduces their collector value, but it improves surface noise. Test pressings are VERY dirty and must be cleaned before evaluating for surface noise.”
“Though the DIY cleaning methods do work, with a little patience and clean cloths, the most predictable and professional results come from using a VPI motorized/vacuum record cleaner.”
“Occasionally I need to make a reissue from a vinyl source because masters get lost, damaged or stolen. Sometimes it’s just that vinyl sounds better than tape that wasn’t stored properly. Anyway, when I’m making a reissue from vinyl I’ll clean and transfer multiple copies of a record. I line each pass up in a workstation, then pick the quietest copy at each location; sometimes every few milliseconds. When you find a similar click in all the pressings that’s an imperfection in the stamper.”
Since we’ve got a VPI machine in the studio, I brought in my copy of “8:30” and a few other recent smudgy finds to give them a good cleaning. The basic process is this: the record goes on the platter and a special cap is applied to the spindle to hold it in place. The “turntable” switch is then flipped to get the record rotating. Cleaning fluid is applied around the record as it spins (making sure to keep away from the label). Then, as Scott mentions in his manual cleaning instructions above, a bristly brush is applied to the record’s surface. The brush evens out the fluid, and is used for some mild scrubbing. Lastly, the machine’s vacuum attachment (think of it as a fat turntable arm with suction power along the bottom) is spun out over the record’s radius. Flipping the “vacuum” switch on the control panel activates the suction. It only takes one rotation of the record to have all the fluid removed. As you can see from the photo below, it did a fantastic job.
Where has this machine been all my life?