Cleaning records

record cleaner waste jar
The filthy contents of a record cleaner waste jar after cleaning a few dozen records. Yuck.

Clean vinyl is essential for proper playback. A dirty disc will sound poor, will sustain damage by being played, and will cause premature wear of your stylus.

There is no substitute for a good vacuum record cleaning machine for cleaning vinyl. Record cleaning machines work by application of a cleaning fluid, followed by vacuuming.

If you have a sizable collection of discs, you would be well advised to invest in a vacuum cleaning machine and use it for all your records. Even new records benefit from a cleaning—it gets rid of vinyl release agent, a chemical used in the record manufacturing process that degrades sound.

Does cleaning a record restore it to mint condition? Sorry, no, it doesn’t. If you’re cleaning a very crackly disc, some pops and clicks may be eliminated, but many may remain, simply because they’ve been ground into the vinyl. And serious damage, like distortion (usually caused by playing with a worn or misaligned cartridge) or scratches can’t be repaired by any means.

But a properly cleaned record will sound as if you’ve upgraded your whole audio system: clearer, higher resolution, better deep bass and high treble, more immediate and involving. And that expensive cartridge you’re using should last a lot longer, as it doesn’t have to claw its way through gunk and grime.

A few comments on record cleaning machine (RCM) designs:

  • The most common design consists of a revolving platter, sometimes the same size as an LP, sometimes much smaller, with a vacuum nozzle the width of the grooved area of an LP, connected to an internal vacuum motor. Cleaning fluid is applied to the entire grooved area of the disc, then vacuumed with the nozzle during one or two rotations.
  • Another design is similar, but, instead of a wide nozzle, employs a “tonearm” with a tiny vacuum nozzle, which sweeps across the record, vacuuming two or three groove widths at a time over many rotations. The process is somewhat slower, but adherents of this design would argue that the concentrated form of vacuum is more effective.
  • Some designs feature an ultrasonic “bath”, in which the disc is immersed and rotated in a water solution that is agitated with ultrasonic “waves” and may also be heated. As these designs usually don’t vacuum the record, we strongly recommend that an ultrasonic clean be followed by a rinse on a vacuum record cleaning machine.
  • Inexpensive RCMs are usually noisy, and must be rested after two or three cleans, as they can overheat. In general, what you pay for when you invest in a higher priced model is quieter operation (some RCMs are nearly silent), a more powerful vacuum action, more robust construction, and the ability to clean records continuously.

About record cleaning fluids:

  • Some are intended to be used straight from the bottle, some are concentrates that must be diluted. With concentrates, only use distilled water, readily available via the internet.
  • Some contain a biological ingredient to kill fungus that may grow on the surface of records that have been stored in damp conditions.
  • Which one to use? In general, follow the recommendation of the manufacturer of your RCM.
  • For very dirty records, leave the fluid on the grooved area of the record for some minutes, allowing it time to get the gunk embedded deep in the grooves in suspension.
  • Some dedicated vinylphiles recommend scrubbing, but we don’t. If you drove your car through a sandstorm, you wouldn’t want to clean it by scrubbing, would you? The same principle applies to your precious discs: if there’s dirt down in those grooves, you don’t want to move it back and forth.
Spin Clean record washer kit
Non-vacuum Spin Clean record washer kit.

If you have a small record collection or don’t want to invest in a record cleaning machine, you might wish to use one of the products that either clean the surface of the disc or immerse it in a bath. Of course, these products can only work in a limited way. Dirt and grunge deep inside the grooves require the vacuum action of a record cleaning machine.

And if you think you’d like to go DIY, please, please, please don’t use tap water, which contains minerals that could actually make your records sound worse. Best alternative is distilled water (available online), followed by ionised or purified water, available in chemists or car accessories shops. Use very little soap, and rinse, rinse, rinse. Don’t risk leaving soap film on the surface of your discs, which will make your record sound dull and could damage your cartridge.

To view our record cleaning products, click here.