Keep It Clean

Do not try this at home. Keep it in the sleeve and never handle the playing surface …
Zampa: Overture, HMV 12″ 78 rpm shellac disc, 1930

“His Master’s Voice record cleaning pad will enable you to keep your records free from particles of dust or gritty matter, which would damage the playing surface and render the reproduction harsh and unmusical.”

 Emitex cleaning cloth as advertised on early 1960s EMI rear sleeves. Hard to date, but the singles in the box with it were mainly 1963. However it says “Produced by EMI Tape Ltd.”

Detritus comes with old singles.  Records are particularly susceptible to spots of mould. Sweaty fingerprints lead to mould spots. Some appear to be covered with cement dust (stored in a garage or loft). Mouse-nibbled sleeve edges appear often too and you don’t want to think what’s actually on those discs.

Gallery: cleaning cloths … click to enlare

No detritus is good. Way back in the early seventies I found a secondhand copy of the third Velvet Underground album. It was dirt cheap and I picked it up after a cursory glance. When I got home it had an odd smell of patchouli and there was a quantity of crumbled brown stuff inside the sleeve. More than you’d think it possible to mislay. I don’t think it was mouse droppings.

More recently, a copy of Dylan’s I Threw It All Away had (appropriately enough given the title) what looked like crumbs of what was either dried Oxo cube or forty-year old hashish in the sleeve. It was totally odourless. A record store owner told me he’d often find bits of grass and seeds inside old 70s albums sleeves, though never in Ken Dodd or Mantovani sleeves.

Boots Record Care Kit

Boots was a major seller of records until the late 70s. Like W.H Smith, they produced their own Record Care Kit. This consisted of a tiny brush for the stylus, a bottle of cleaning fluid and a coarse sponge pad for applying the cleaner to the record surface.

Mostly soft cloths, impregnated with an antistatic solution were the cleaner of choice. 

The instructions to a Condor cleaning cloth  are fulsome

The moist feel of the cloth will be retained if it (sic) replaced in the inner plastic wallet after use. Should it be allowed to dry out the impregnation can be reactivated by sprinkling lightly with water. Do not wash the cloth. Replace the cloth with a new one when it has become badly soiled or after treating approximately 1,000 record sides. The results will more than justify the small cost.

The classic 60s cleaning cloth was believed to grind dirt into the grooves, so further aids were needed. 

The Pixall Off-The-Record Cleaner won a Japanese award. It’s basically a roller of sticky tape. The instructions say that when it gets too dirty, you peel off a layer to reveal a fresh one below, or  rather ‘Renew the cleaning surface.’ So it IS a roll of sticky tape. This one had come into a friend’s shop with a box of LPs. We looked at it, concealed in its box for years.  Should we try it on a record? We decided there wasn’t one we disliked that much, though Englebert Humperdink nearly became the test. Such is the love of vintage record connections that eBay had them on sale (August 2018) from £10.99 to £29.99. Several were over £20. (I think they are still made.)

Some of the ones on sale are boxed and unused, but I think the hairs adhering to the illustrated one add a certain 60s feel, even if they look vaguely pubic.

The Parostatik Disc Preener used a felt pad roller with a metal holder so that if you were careless you could scratch the disc. You could soak it in water and squeeze it out. It’s still much admired.

Next up was the Dust Bug, known to many 70s fans. You spat on a rubber mount and and pushed it hard onto the turntable surround. Then the red fibre pad and little brush went round and round with the record. 

The true hi-fi buff distained the dust-bug, believing that it must inevitably cause drag so that the record was pulled down from say the optimum thirty-three and a third to perhaps thirty-three and a quarter. It was also said to cause wear. Most often the spit dried up on the rubber mount and it fell off. You could buy replacement soft pads and blue was an option (or possibly an equivalent make).

To be fair, the true hi-fi buff, if asked to appraise the cleaners listed so far would select NONE OF THE ABOVE.

Top: carbon-fibre brush, next anti-static gun, bottom dust bug in its case

The carbon-fibre brush which is used dry was pretty good. They still seem effective at 20 to 25 years old too (mine, as illustrated), removing dust and static. If I were designing one, I wouldn’t have a metal case. Scratch potential is there.

The anti-static gun was also effective, particularly with long-stored LPs. You just pointed and clicked and it removed static. Again, the very old one illustrated still clicks and works. Zerostat is the most common brand nowadays. However, a domestic ionizer plugged in to the mains does much the same job, even if our hi-fi buff would worry about other electrical impulses within a mile. You can switch the ionizer off. And unplug it. Then put it in another room.

You should only use plain distilled water to clean discs, so everyone says. Most stores don’t; they use straight alcohol drops in water, or better special record cleaning fluid.  Several use glass cleaner. There’s an argument here. If a disc is pretty good, say Very Good to Excellent in appearance, I would prefer to buy it as it came into the shop and clean it myself. I’ve stopped the squirt of Windolene and said, ‘No, it’s OK, I’ll do it later.’ I’d either want a disc cleaned in a machine, or left as it is so I can see what I’m buying.

45s are more robust than LPs when it comes to cleaning. The really spotty mouldy ones benefit from … speak very softly, but a store owner showed me this in action … Dettol anti-bacterial surface wipes … before cleaning again with record cleaning fluid and a cloth (to remove the Dettol wipe stuff) It also does wonders for laminated sleeves at a fraction of the price of specialist “book jacket cleaner.”

When I’ve noticed a mark on an LP, I’ve seen sellers use spit on a finger to see if it comes off.

Cleaning fluid comes in several types. The uncoloured ones have a vile perfume. The blue ones don’t. I’ve seen the blue cleaning fluid at a wide range of prices. Do shop around for record cleaner. I once saw the same brand in three shops within a week. £4.99, in a record shop, £7.99 in another record shop, £12.99 in a high-end hi-fi shop. There’s also an aerosol version, and a polish to use afterwards to restore that new out of the sleeve sixties look.

Record Collector, November 2020 (I added this after the main article) declares: Avoid alcohol based self-drying liquids that depend on evaporation to clean a disc. They deposit dust that is held in suspension, re-introducing it into the grooves along with a chemical deposit. The best alcohol free liquid is L’Art du Son …

I have heard much the same many times and it covers the record cleaner I often use. On the other hand, the average “hi-fi” turntable is around £300, with the next level around £700 to £1200, then audiophile decks running up to £10,000. Will most of us actually hear the difference?

I was given some advice by a classical specialist. He was visiting my local store, who put classical records aside for him to examine. He said play the disc. Clean the stylus using a gel pad. Play it again. The record will sound better. Play it a third time. Better again. It works. I put LPs and 45s onto CDR-Music using a Philips CD Recorder. I tried it with a 45 and an LP track, playing each three times and recording it each time, and the third is significantly better.

Gel pad for cleaning the stylus.

Gel pads are useful for cleaning the stylus, though after a few goes the film of dusty grunge on top looks permanent.

True hi-fi buffs will need a cleaning machine. They first had disc vacuum cleaners where you inserted the disc vertically and it sucked all the dust off. Nowadays they use a disc-washer which uses distilled water and vacuums it back up. You’re talking £300 at the bottom up to £3000 for a really professional ultrasonic cleaner. The internet has many people arguing the pros and cons of different machines. These arguments get fierce. At the bottom end is a bath with a spindle you turn yourself, then there is a range of vacuum machines, and finally the full ultrasonic with bath.

Gallery … record cleaners. Click to enlarge

We are not endorsing or criticizing any of them. Prices were online in September 2020, and mainly amazon. They vary considerably from shop to shop. When you read this, they will be different. A common complaint is having to pay more for a 7″ adaptor for 45s. Check that it can do different sizes. Some models can do two or more discs at the same time.

A local hi-fi shop had vinyl evenings, and everyone attending could get one LP cleaned properly on a Project. I took Miles Davis Nefertiti and it made a great difference.

Some dealers do use cleaning machines on their better class of stock, and hi-fi magazines swear by them for removing all traces and massively improving sound , and you’d expect the process to add a pound or ten to the asking price. It will.

You can get an ultrasonic cleaner “as used in operating theatres and the diamond industry”. OK, but you need one shaped to take a record rather than a scalpel. It gets everything off a dirty disc. They were thousands of pounds though. In 2019, what used to be the £3000 model was being demonstrated at a Record Fair and was down to £1200. I watched. After one immersion, the disc looked spotless. The demonstrator had a light and an extreme magnifier linked to a laptop. After that first clean, there were still traces of stuff in the grooves. He told me it was residue from bottled record cleaner (see above). It took three passes to remove everything. Then he demonstrated a new vinyl record, never played. The light and magnifying glass revealed detritus in the grooves from manufacture, and the cleaning machine after a couple of goes removed an oily film left from manufacture. So if you have such an esoteric cleaning device, you clean brand-new vinyl too.

Some secondhand record shops have gone in for cleaning discs properly. Some will clean every disc which is on sale at over £20. Others will clean cheaper discs … I’ve seen the service offered at £1 and £2 up to £5. £5 was with an ultrasonic machine … even at the cheapest end of ultrasonics, you have to clean 240 discs at £5 to pay for the machine. For a busy shop, I think you could easily add £5 to the price with a sticker “Ultrasonically cleaned.”

I bought a Mike Harrison (ex-Spooky Tooth) LP in Wales which had been ultrasonically cleaned, and the disc looked pretty heavily scuffed with tiny scratches, but it played far better than I’d have thought.

An issue is noise. Most machines are noisy and as one shop owner told me, ‘The thing is, I have this shop so I can play music all day. I don’t want to listen to a record cleaning machine instead.’