How I Clean My Vinyl Records (In the Real World)
Part of vinyl’s appeal is the ritual of listening to music, something that’s lost when we’re listening to tunes playing on a computer or a phone in the background. Shopping for albums, bringing them home, putting them on the turntable, and listening intently with the album cover in hand. The ritual is what it’s all about. The attention that must be paid to the music. The relaxation of it all. Another thing about vinyl is that it must be cared for, and for me, that’s just part of the overall experience; vinyl records are a physical entity, textile things, and they sound better when they’re properly handled. Treat them poorly, they’re going to sound bad. Treat them right, however, and they’ll sound better than just about anything else out there.
Over the past few years, I’ve looked for information on how to care for vinyl record albums, and trust me when I say that the info runs the spectrum; vinyl forums are full of arguments over the best way to clean a record. It’s really hard to find a definitive answer one way or another, but I think I’ve found a method that works well for me, and may work well for you as well.
Before I go through my vinyl cleaning steps, it’s got to be stated that however you choose to clean and care for your own records, it’s probably going to be a thousand times better than how record owners of decades past cared for theirs. I dig through lots of old albums, and it’s clear that the vast majority of people in the past just plain didn’t care for their albums at all. Scratches, dirt, grime, albums in covers with no sleeves… It’s a shame to find an album I’ve ben looking for only to discover it covered with scratches. In their heyday, records were treated much like people in the 90’s cared for their CDs, which is not well at all.
Look at any picture of people listening to records back in the day, and invariably there’s piles of records all over the floor, picking records up with their fingers all over them, vinyl stacked ten high on the record changer (so convenient these record changers were, but sooooo bad for the records!)
You think I’m kidding?
While it’s horrifying to see how people used to treat their vinyl, I will say this: The records are in the shape they’re in because they were played, they were listened to, and they were loved. They were a crucial part of everyday life for music lovers. They weren’t fetishized like vinyl sometimes is today. I believe in a middle ground: Buy vinyl, listen to it, and treat it very, very well.
Todays’ vinyl enthusiasts work hard to keep their vinyl in good shape. Spend any amount of time looking at forums online, and you’ll quickly discover that vinyl maintenance falls into two groups: those who are borderline anal about cleaning their vinyl, and have way too much time and money at their disposal, and those (like me) who just want their records to sound good and don’t want to spend a lot of money to do it.
Why I Don’t Use a Record Cleaning Machine
Audiophiles and vinyl obsessives love to sing the praises of their record cleaning machines, which are typically big boxes that bathe records automatically and then vacuum them dry. I have no doubt this is a great way to clean records. But they are expensive. Even the less expensive cleaning machines cost several hundred dollars. Some cost much more. I can’t go that route, nor would I want to if I could. It just seems like overkill.
The people (Guys. It’s always guys.) who claim that anything less than a $500 record cleaning machine will destroy your vinyl are the same people who aren’t happy until they’ve got some monstrosity of a turntable that set them back $20,000 and sometimes look like this:
There are less expensive cleaning units, like the Spin Clean, which I honestly could see myself using some day. But at about 80 bucks, it’s still a little pricey.
People who use these ridiculously expensive record cleaning machines also seem to obsess over cleaning their albums. It’s not unusual to read of people who put their albums throw the cleaning machine before and/or after every listen! Again, I enjoy vinyl because of the music, and I’m not looking for perfection. A crackle or a pop here and there isn’t going to drive me crazy; in fact, it’s part of the listening experience.
There are other cleaning techniques that I’d file in the borderline obsessive file. Things like using wood glue to clean a really dirty record. Again, for a really filthy old record, it probably works. But I’m not doing it. Or cleaning records with lighter fluid. Not recommended for smokers.
How I Keep MY Records Clean
I’ve come to the conclusion that getting a record clean, and keeping it clean, is relatively easy. It’s also a relatively cheap thing to do. It’s easy to get swept up in the vinyl mania and start spending lots of cash (as it is with most hobbies,) but it’s not necessary. So with that, here’s my simple steps for cleaning a record the economic way.
Step One: Cleaning Solution
There’s all kinds of record cleaning solutions on the market; most of them do a good job. Some of them are expensive. I decided to go the DIY route and make my own. Recipes abound online, but they are all variations on a similar theme. Here’s my solution:
80% DISTILLED Water (not tap water or spring water or anything else. Distilled water is purified of anything that may damage your record.)
20% Isopropyl Alcohol that is at least 90% pure. The higher the better, but at least 90%. Really cheap at the drugstore or supermarket
One or two drops of a simple dishwashing detergent like Dawn.
Mix this in a spray bottle and you’re good to go.
Step Two: Microfiber!!
Next, you need something to scrub the record with. Any kind of soft, lint-free towel will work, but I use microfiber towels. They’re soft enough that they won’t scratch the record. I find mine in the auto detailing section of the store. Get a bunch to both wash and dry your vinyl.
Microfiber cloths are made from synthetic fibers. They’re lint free so they won’t leave anything behind to get trapped in your vinyl’s grooves.
Step Three: Clean Those Records!
Here’s where your technique may vary. I bought two dent pullers (again, in the auto dept.) that I clamp over the label on both sides of the record. I learned this basic technique from the video below. This guy uses a device called the Groovemaster to cover the labels, but I think my dent pullers work better.
Once they’re attached, the record labels are covered and protected, and you can hold the album without worrying about dropping it.
I run the record under lukewarm tap water on both sides to wash off surface dust. Then, I spray one side with my record cleaning solution, and scrub in a circular motion (never scrub against the grooves on the record!) 3 or 4 times in each direction. Then I turn the record over and repeat.
After scrubbing the cleaning solution in, I rinse both sides really well under the tap again.
Once the record is rinsed, I pour a fair amount of distilled water over each side to wash away any impurities or minerals left behind by the tap water.
Remove the dent pullers, and dry the record gently with some microfiber cloths.
While record cleaning machines vacuum the remaining water away, I let mine air dry after toweling them off. I have a dish rack which is perfect, and can hold several albums at once. Letting them air dry for at least 20 minutes is sufficient. Never play a wet record!!
Typically once a record is cleaned, it shouldn’t need a thorough cleaning again. For everyday record maintenance, I use a carbon-fiber record brush like THIS, before each play. This gets out any dust and also helps control static.
Alternative Record Cleaning Techniques
If you don’t have, or don’t want, dent pullers, you can simply place the album on a soft towel and clean and dry one side at a time. Most record labels won’t be damaged if they get a little wet. I’ve also seen people use an old turntable or used lazy susan to spin the record while they clean it.
Another option if you don’t want to mix your own cleaning solution is to use an ammonia-free glass cleaner. I’ve used Sparkle glass cleaner and it works really well. I’d just recommend giving the record a rinse with distilled water after cleaning.
Alternatives to cleaning the record with a microfiber cloth include soft cotton cloths, sponge, or paint pads which have a soft, fuzzy surface great for scrubbing out the grime from your grooves.
The important thing to take away from this is there’s no real right or wrong way to clean a record, no matter what you hear. Let common sense prevail, and don’t use any highly toxic chemicals. Vinyl records are pretty durable.
Old used records are everywhere: record shops, flea markets, garage sales, goodwill stores…. I’ve found that even records covered in dirt, mold, and dust can be brought back to life with a good cleaning. In my experience, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to clean every used record I bring home, even if it looks relatively clean. Like I mentioned, many record owners of yore didn’t take particularly good care of their vinyl. But with a little TLC, they can be born again.
If you have the money and want to invest in an expensive record cleaning machine, I’m not going to try and stop you. But in the real world, where budgets are tight, there are ways to keep our platters clean without breaking the bank.
OTHER COMMON SENSE RECORD MAINTENANCE TIPS:
1. Keep records stored in anti-static plastic record sleeves instead of paper. Paper can cause static, and tiny paper particles can get onto your records. A wise investment if you cherish your vinyl.
2. Put your records in plastic outer sleeves as well. This will protect the covers from moisture, dust, finger prints, etc. and keep them looking new.
3. Store your records vertically. NEVER stack your records. This will quickly lead to warping, which leads to ruined records.
4. Don’t play records on a worn-out stylus. Replacing your needle on a regular basis is critical for both good sound and for not ruining your vinyl! Each stylus has a different life span; if you don’t know what yours is, replace it at least annually to be safe.
5. Leave the vinyl lovers of tomorrow quality records. Don’t treat YOUR records like your grandparents treated theirs! Follow all of the above steps….handle records by their edges only, don’t put your fingerprints all over them. Keep records stored in their protective covers and sleeves at all times when they’re not being played. Don’t leave them lying out all over the floor.
6. LISTEN TO and ENJOY your vinyl!!! Records are made to be listened to above all else. Even a modest setup with a decent receiver and speakers will give you the warm, natural sound that vinyl is known for. Again, you can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on turntables and stereo equipment, but you don’t have to.