Collecting vinyl records is more popular than ever. We’ve documented several times on this website how despite the overall decline in physical music sales, vinyl records continue to buck the overall trend by growing year-on-year. Last year, in particular, was a significant milestone for the vinyl revival as sales grew for the tenth consecutive year.
It’s rather remarkable to think, that despite living in an age where the average smartphone conveniently stores over 3000 songs, there’s still a market for something as inconvenient as vinyl. It would appear that despite the advantages of digital, many of us still yearn for something a little more tangible.
In my humble opinion, it is the tangible nature of vinyl that draws most people in. There’s just something special about the whole ritual of vinyl: the beautiful artwork; pulling the record from its sleeve; gently dropping the stylus before setting the disc in motion – it’s so much more rewarding than iTunes!
Or is it? With all this nostalgia and analog driven ritual comes a heck of a lot more maintenance. Clean records on a great turntable sound fantastic; dirty records just sound, well, dirty…
To fully enjoy vinyl, you must keep your records clean. Dirty records don’t just sound bad, they’re also bad for your turntable, as the increased stress on your stylus will significantly shorten its life. This, in turn, will also lead to increased record wear.
You can read more about complete record care in our previous post, but for today, we’re going to turn our heads specifically to keeping records clean. Fortunately for record collectors, there are plenty of tried and tested methods for keeping your precious collection clean and clear for many years you come.
But before we get started – a quick note on everyday dry cleaning:
Always clean the dust off your records using a carbon fibre brush before commencing to any of the wet-cleaning methods I’m about to list. Failure to do so will risk pushing dust further into the grooves. As best practice, you should always use a carbon fibre brush to clean your records before and after each play-back. This will help reduce build up of dust that can shorten your stylus life and contaminate records.
Record Cleaning Machines
First up, the easiest and most effective method – using a cleaning machine.
Ok, so they’re a little expensive; but the fact remains, record cleaning machines are the most effective way to clean vinyl records. The reason they’re so effective is because unlike manual cleaning, record cleaning machines work by sucking up the applied cleaning solution, which in-turn takes all the dirt and grime away with it. Cleaning machines have the added benefit of saving you a ton of time when bulk cleaning large collections.
The Project VC-S Vinyl cleaner is great, and will clean your records in just two rotations.
If spending $499 on a record cleaning machine is out of the question, there are cheaper manual machines on the market. The Spin Clean is a more laborious, but effective cleaning machine that works great for bulk cleaning your collection on a budget. The device works by brushing both sides of a record at the same time, while effectively giving your records a bath.
Clean Vinyl Records by Hand
Don’t have the budget or space for a record cleaning machine? Fear not, with a little extra effort, you can achieve great sounding records when cleaning by hand.
For this process, you will need the following items:
- Record cleaning solution
- Microfibre cloths
- Record cleaning mat (optional)
There are currently two record cleaning solutions we recommend:
1) The Vinyl Revival record cleaning kit. It’s 100% alcohol-free and does a good job of cleaning. It does, however, require you to perform a two-step cleaning process (clean and rinse), and it’s only available in the UK.
2) GrooveWasher. By far our current favorite, GrooveWasher is a single-step cleaning method that leaves no residue behind, avoiding the need for any secondary rinse. Their G2 Fluid is the result of years of research and testing, guided by the popular 1970s Discwasher. We’ve tested countless cleaning solutions on the market, and on balance, GrooveWasher is the fastest and most convenient manual hand-cleaning solutions available. (GrooveWasher is available worldwide. Shipping is free inside the United States.)
Both record cleaning solutions come complete with microfiber cloth(s). It’s a good idea to keep switching them, as repeat usage can risk recontaminating records. The point of using a microfiber cloth is to help penetrate the grooves and remove entrenched dirt and dust, so it pays to keep them clean.
A note on alcohol-based cleaning solutions:
There is much debate in the audio industry as to whether or not it’s safe to use alcohol when cleaning vinyl.
According to vinylfactory.com, “Pure alcohol strips away much of the rubbish and gunge from grooves – which is great – but it also removes the protective coating that rests on the groove walls/floor. Once that essential protective layer is gone, music sounds harsh and brittle.”
On the contrary, reliable sources, such as the Library of Congress in the US will use solutions containing purified alcohol to clean records. This is different from high-percentage alcohol such as standard isopropyl, which is much more likely to cause damage.
The jury might remain open on this topic, but overall, we advise readers to steer clear of any record cleaning solution that contains a large amount of isopropyl alcohol. Both fluid options recommend in this article are safe to use and will not hard your precious records.
Based on GrooveWashers system, here’s the complete cleaning process we recommend:
Step 1: Carefully place the record on the microfiber towel included in your GrooveWasher kit. (If your kit does not include this towel, use a soft clean cloth or record cleaning mat). Place the record label protector disk on the record label. Spray 5 or 6 mist sprays to completely cover the record surface. Wait 10 seconds or more.
Step 2: Set the cleaning pad base into the wood handle.
Step 3: Lightly apply the leading edge of the pad to the record and wipe the record in concentric arcs (with the grooves, not across). Wipe the entire record at least 3 times with moderate pressure.
Step 4: Rotate the pad to gently dry and groom the surface. If visual inspection shows a problem area, spray it again with the G2 fluid, wait a few seconds, and use the pad to gently scrub the area, but only in the direction of the grooves. Seriously dirty records may require 2 or 3 cleanings.
Step 5: Allow the record to air dry before playing.
To hear some real results using GrooveWasher, listen to the embeded audio examples below (taken from our full GrooveWasher review). This fairly dirty record starts to clear up really well by the second and third cleaning.
The Bottom Line
The processes I’ve described above are the safest way to clean your vinyl records. However, the internet hoppers among us might have heard of a few other, less conventional methods recommended by all kinds of sources, from YouTubers to major websites. With this in mind, here are some cleaning methods you should avoid:
Tap Water and Dish Soap
This method should be avoided at all cost – particularly if you live in a hard water area. The reason is, regular tap water contains impurities, such as mineral deposits, which can contaminate and damage records. As for the dish soap, this can leave residue on the record – just don’t go there.
The Wood Glue Method
I’ll be honest, I’ve actually tried this one, and it works – it’s just incredibly risky.
For those who don’t know, the wood glue cleaning method refers to a process whereby you spread a solid layer of wood glue over the record surface (avoiding the label). When left to dry overnight, the glue dries clear – picking up dirt and dust deep inside the grooves. The idea is, all the grim is removed when peeling back the glue.
Like I said, I’ve tried it; it worked pretty well, I just wouldn’t like to take the risk on a rare or expensive record – what if your glue doesn’t peel off in one piece!? It’s also very time-consuming, and at one side per night, it would take you a long time to complete your entire collection. I would save this method as a last resort if all else fails on a highly contaminated record; better still, invest in a cleaning machine.