Vinyl is a very physical contact format. A real shard of diamond has to nestle into the groove of a record and read all of the subtle undulations of that black wax. It all happens on a very small scale. It’s not quite small enough to be literally called microscopic, but there’s over 120 grooves per CM of the average record. Considering there’s 2 sides to a groove, that means that your stylus won’t shift as far as a twentieth of a millimetre when reading music off a record. A grain of dust, a little bit of cotton fibre, the dried spittle from your drunken mate pontificating over the top of your stereo - any small obstruction can distort the way your record is read.
Clean vinyl sounds better, more true to the recording, and it’s going to make sure your stylus lasts as long as possible.
Anti static record brush. The weapon to win the war on dust.
The one thing every vinyl aficionado needs to have in their arsenal is a simple carbon fibre anti static brush. They’re simple and cheap. One should live beside your turntable and should be used briefly on most records before you play them. If you don't already own one of these, please do yourself a favour and go buy one. Now. I'll wait.
The thousands of tiny little carbon bristles will eat up any static on the surface of your vinyl. It also moves dust from one spot to another. Like a brush. I like to spin the turntable’s platter by and while holding the brush perpendicular to the grooves. A couple of rotations and the dust on the record is all collected in one small line. This can then be flicked off the front of the record with the brush. Just remember to vacuum the floor in front of your turntable every now and then.
Carbon fibre brushes for cleaning the stylus are also available. These are important, but should be used sparingly. A bit of fluff on the end of the stylus can be removed by blowing in it gently, but a bit of scunge building up on the diamond needs a little bit of light brushing. Never scrubbing. Pushing a stylus backwards with a brush is an easy way to break it.
Do remember to keep your disgusting human hands off the record surface. This is just general advice whenever handling a record. Fingerprint smudges are a magnet for scummy build up, so handle them by the edges, or by the label.
In an ideal world, these few simple steps of cleaning records would mean that you don’t really need to do any further cleaning. Daily maintenance means that deeper, more ingrained dirt doesn’t become a problem, and dirt won’t build up on the stylus either. We don’t live in an ideal world though…
Cleaning on a budget
If you’ve got a record that’s really filthy, something that needs a bath, then there are a few different ways to go about cleaning them off. There’s lots of different cleaning solutions, products and gizmos out there that can make cleaning a record easier, but the most basic way of doing it, is to wash them on your kitchen sink like you’re doing the dishes. Well… Not quite like the dishes. Honestly, if you’ve got some baked on pork fat on your record, it’s probably just better to buy a new copy.
This is by far the most labour intensive and time consuming way of cleaning a record, but you’re most likely to have everything needed at home. There’s a few main steps you’ll want to observe.
- Half fill your sink with lukewarm water and a drop or two (no more) of detergent.
- Gently clean the record with a clean non-fibrous, non-scouring dishcloth.
- Brush the cloth in a circular motion with the grooves. Don’t scrub back and forward.
- Try not to get the label wet. It will peel off and you’ll end up with a mystery album. Or worse, sticky bits of label debris will end up in the grooves. You want to only fill the sink up enough to wet down part of the record.
Luxury options - Spin clean
If you’re a dedicated second hand shopper, or you just don’t have all afternoon to clean a handful of records, then you’re going to want some sort of device for helping you clean your vinyl. A cleaning device is not something you’ll use every day, but it’s a great way to keep your vinyl in good shape It’s honestly going to save you hours of your life if you’re ever cleaning more than one record.
The Spin-Clean Record Washer System MkII is the cheapest, cleverest way of just improving on the old sink method. It’s a simple water bath, but sized just-so for a record. It’s equipped with rollers and brushes that keep your record in place, keep your label dry and cleans both sides of the record at once. What takes more than 15 minutes manually, now takes somewhere less than 1 minute.
This is also a great way for cleaning up new records too. A lot of publishers actually coat new vinyl with a thin layer of anti-fungal agent. This is to stop mould or other nasties growing on records in long term storage. This gunk can start to build up on the stylus over time. It is more effort than it’s worth to clean every new record by hand, but a Spin-Clean makes things easy enough that it actually is a good way to keep your stylus clean and safe long term.
Don’t pick. That’s how you get scars.
Keeping your vinyl clean is undoubtedly important, but it can be overdone too. Remember that the grooves on a record are tiny, and it doesn’t take too much force to scratch them. Repeated over cleaning, or hard scrubbing are going to trash your record collection as fast as neglect would.
A regime of light anti-static dusting every now and then, and a deep wet-cleaning only when required will keep your vinyl in tip top shape for many years.