The tactile nature of vinyl records is both what makes the format appealing, and also challenging. Well cared for records can last a lifetime, while poorly looked after records will quickly become worthless and unlistenable. For the best listening experience, consider following these key points to help you look after your vinyl records and preserve them for many years to come.
Step one is the proper storage of your precious records when they’re not in use. First, always store your records vertically and away from extreme temperature or humidity changes to prevent warping. Never lay your records flat as this is a sure way to warp them over time. Secondly, dust and dirt are the audiophiles worst enemy, and the best weapon here is prevention. Always store your records in their sleeve and place them inside the cover. The aim of the game is to keep the amount of time that a record is exposed to airborne dust and dirt particles to an absolute minimum. You can also give records an extra layer of protection by storing them in plastic outer sleeves.
Second in the war against damaging dust and dirt is the inner sleeves that hold your record inside the cover. The paper sleeves that typically ship with records do little to protect the record from static that can attract dust and dirt. The safest way to protect your records over time from dust and chemical reactions is to use polyethylene lined sleeves. The lining of a poly sleeve is both soft on your records and keeps static to a minimum – good news for keeping the dust at bay.
Handling your records in the correct way is imperative if you want to keep them clean. If dust and dirt are the vinyl enthusiasts worst enemy, you’ll want to avoid getting them so dirty in the first place by keeping your mitts off those delicate grooves! The long and short of it is: don’t touch any part of the record which contains information. Instead, handle your record carefully by the edges and the inner label.
Additionally, be sure to use a carbon fiber brush to remove any surface dust carefully both before and after playing your record. If your turntable has a lid, you can also close it during playback to minimize the risk of airborne dust reaching the record surface.
Cleaning Your Records
Even with the utmost care and the most meticulous of storage solutions, your records will occasionally benefit from a good clean. There are many opinions on how to clean vinyl records in the correct way, to the point where there is almost a pseudoscience surrounding the whole topic. However, there are a few commonly listed techniques which can help to restore the sonic quality of your records if dust and or dirt has become problematic.
Cleaning becomes particularly important if you buy your records used; as dirt, oil, and dust will no doubt be present, causing poor sound quality in the form of pops and clicks. Dirty records will also damage your stylus over time.
So how do you go about cleaning records?
First things first, always clean the dust off your records using a carbon fiber brush before commencing to any form of wet-cleaning. Failure to do so will only risk pushing dust further into the grooves, or will simply move loose dirt around.
With the initial surface-level dust removed, you can now progress to further deep cleaning using one of the following methods:
Record Cleaning Machines
By far the most effective way to clean records – particularly en masse – is to use a vacuum based cleaning system. Such systems typically have the record placed on a platter while a vacuum sucks up the applied cleaning solution along with the dirt and grime. Sadly, such systems are also quite expensive and require a lot of space. The good news is, there are a number of affordable alternatives, which can yield great results.
The first method is to use a manual record cleaning machine, such as the Spin Clean Record Washer. Compact machines, such as Spin Clean require some investment up front, but can also save you a lot of time and effort – particularly if you have a large vinyl collection. They work by giving your records a bath using a cleaning solution and distilled water. All you have to do is gently spin the record through the cleaning solution while the built-in cleaning pads do the hard work of gently lifting dirt.
Cleaning Records by Hand
If you’re on a budget, you can still get great results with hand cleaning methods – albeit more time-consuming. Place your record on a soft, lint-free surface and apply a record cleaning solution. Tap water should be avoided as it can contain mineral deposits or limescale that can damage your record. Once the solution is applied, gently clean your record in the direction of the grooves using a microfiber cloth or pad. Next, use a separate microfiber cloth to dry the record and repeat the process if necessary. I personally use GrooveWasher record cleaning solution, which is specially developed to effectively clean vinyl records and not leave any residue. You can purchase the handy kit version (as pictured above), which includes the beautiful walnut cleaning pad and display block, or instead opt for their cost-effective starter kits. (The core cleaning solution is the same in both).
Note to UK/EU readers: GrooveWasher will ship directly from their website globally,
The cleaning methods listed above can improve audio clarity, but will not restore damaged records. A damaged or worn record will remain damaged despite any cleaning process. Always handle your records with respect and maintain your turntable to reduce wear.
A worn stylus can permanently damage your records. If you’re unsure about the condition, play on the safe side and replace it. As a matter of practice, I replace my stylus at least once every year. How long a stylus will last depends on how many records you play, the condition of your records, and how well you maintain the stylus with regular cleaning. On average, a diamond stylus tip will typically last between 800 and 1000 playing hours. (That’s a best-case scenario of about 4 records per day).
To help your stylus stay in tip-top condition for as long as possible, avoid playing damaged or very dirty records, and make a habit of cleaning your stylus regularly. For this, you’ll need a stylus cleaner (I use the SC1 GrooveWasher solution) to gently remove dirt. When doing so, always handle with care and gently pull the brush from back to front to ensure you don’t damage the delicate stylus shank.
Turntable Setup & Maintenance
Equally important on the maintenance front is the correct setup of your turntable itself. A poorly aligned tonearm, for example, can irreparably damage your vinyl.
If you’ve purchased a new turntable, you may be in luck, as many of them now come set up with the cartridge pre-fitted and aligned. If you’ve purchased or inherited a used one, on the other hand, you’ll need to check a few things to ensure it won’t cause damage. For the purpose of this post, we’ll stick to the basics for now, but at the very least you should ensure that the tracking weight is set correctly and the cartridge is aligned as per your manufacturer’s guidelines.
Always set your tonearm counterweight in accordance with your cartridge requirements. If the weight is not set correctly, your tonearm could suffer a loss of performance or even be causing record wear.
Also key to avoiding excessive wear and maintaining great sound is the alignment of your cartridge. Having correct alignment is crucial as it affects how your stylus sits inside the record grooves. If the alignment is out, your stylus could be applying excess pressure to the walls of your record grooves, and subsequently, cause damage. Specialist equipment can be purchased to precisely align your cartridge, but you can also get good results using free paper alignment protractors – available to download at vinylengine.com
Finally – and often misunderstood – is the anti-skate counterweight. In a nutshell, setting this correctly will prevent your tonearm from ridding up the side of the groove and increasing record wear. Not to mention the increased sound quality that comes with encouraging the stylus to sit centrally in the groove.
The Bottom Line
The information in this introduction to vinyl record maintenance is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many aspects to looking after records, and many more tools available on the market. To learn more, continue reading part 2 of this article for further tips and tricks.
(This post was originally published April