The Most Comprehensive Record Cleaning Article Ever!
Zen and the Art of Record Cleaning Made Difficult
By Michael Wayne
You've finally secured a copy of that elusive Golden Era record you've
sought for so long. It cost you more than a set of tires for a Porsche 959.
Now you are ready to reap the rewards of your unrelenting efforts; but
first, since you consider yourself a well informed audiophile record
collector, you decide to vacuum wash your treasured disc, both to make
certain you hear nothing but its unvitiated analog beauty, and because you
vaguely recall reading something somewhere about the potential record
damaging dangers of playing uncleaned records.
Dutifully you apply your favorite fluid to the disc'perhaps using a brush
to scrub and spread the fluid about. You set the machine to vacuum, and in
a mere few revolutions, you are at last ready to revel in the sonic ecstasy
of your new vinyl treasure.
By the end of side one, a slight but persistent vinyl noise and a subtly
cloudy musical presentation fill you with doubt and nascent frustration.
Vinyl angst has set in. Wasn't this LP supposed to be 'Super-mint,' or
'AAA-Ultra-Plus'' or some such hyperbole? It was certainly expensive
enough. Burned again? Perhaps another cleaning cycle might do the trick.
Doggedly, you repeat the ritual, and this time you are reassured. Why yes,
more of that whooshy background is gone, and darn if the entire soundstage
hasn't increased in scope and definition. The instruments sound richer and
timbrally more accurate. Ah! Your troubled soul begins to relax. Another
few cleanings and perhaps even that thin hiss which has new replaced the
intial whoosh will disappear; the soundstage and hall reverb will become
even more evident and pure. This disc may yet sound the way your dealer
'Sid the Groovemeister' promised it would.
Keep dreaming, Alice. Wonderland ever beckons the desperate. Your
fastidious but flawed, and woefully incomplete cleaning attempts may have
insured that you never experience the full potential of your cherished
record. You may as well go digital.
Indeed, the very first alarm signaling a potentially serious record
cleaning problem sounds simultaneously with improvements heard after the
first cleaning cycle. It indicates that the cleansing attempt was only
In place of the large, original groove contaminants, there now are smaller,
possibly stickier ones, to which cleaning fluid has bonded chemically and,
if the record is played after this single cleaning cycle, probably
thermodynamically as well, due to the intense heat and pressure generated
by the stylus traveling through the groove.
Play a record with foreign matter sticking to its grooves, and you run the
risk of welding it in permanently. The solution, of course, is to start
with a completely and perfectly clean disc.
Let's examine a few widely held misconceptions about record cleaning. The
first is that vacuum cleaning is sufficient and complete. In fact, it may
be, but only in those few special cases where the contaminants are
primarily dust and nothing more. When a disc has been subjected to an
environment of tobacco smoke, fingerprint oils (which over time tend to
harden and solidify on a vinyl surface), silicone record cleaning cloths
(true groove polluting monsters), God knows-what cleaning fluids and
brushes, and a variety of other sticky, gummy substances, a simply vacuum
cleaning cycle is unlikely to do the trick.
Using the techniques described in this article, I have regularly taken
vacuumed discs and removed globs of yellow-brownish gooey substances from
the supposedly 'clean' record grooves.
The safe and highly effective cleaning techniques described here, do
require some time and effort, but since when has that stopped analogue
devotees? The cleaning approach I recommend is based upon the following
principles and strategies:
1) Use of a chemically wide spectrum of cleaning fluids.
No single fluid is completely effective in removing all possible types of
disc contaminants. To insure effective cleaning, several fluids must be
used. Whatever one fluid cannot clean well, another fluid must be used
As Myles Astor has demonstrated (in his article 'Record Cleaning Fluids,'
Sounds Like #8, May 1990. This is the finest article to date on the subject
of record cleaning fluid chemistry and its sonic consequences), groove wall
interactions occur on a molecular level, and like it or not, any and every
cleaning fluid will leave some amount of itself behind. In order to keep
residues to a minimum, the cleaning solution used in each step must
dissolve the one used previously. This minimizes or prevents audible
cleaning fluid residue signatures such as low level 'whoosh' and high
2) Minimal contamination of final brushes.
The surface of the vacuum cleaning brush should only come into contact with
a purely clean disc surface, otherwise it will transfer contaminants from
record to record, absorbing and smearing more and more goo as it goes.
To accomplish this, prior to disc vacuuming we must use a fluid
application/absorption/groove scrubbing device, with replaceable and
disposable pads. In this regimen, vacuum cleaning is the last step, the
purpose of which is to remove fluids rather than gross contaminants and
debris from the record surface. This insures that the vacuum suction pads
will not spread dirt from disc to disc.
TOOLS, SUPPLIES AND PREPARATION
You will need several inexpensive items, the first of which is a used
turntable. It need not be operational, but it will ease your task greatly
if it is'a high torque model being preferable. Your only concern is a
platform that rotates, or may be easily rotated. I found an old Pioneer
PL-35 belt drive for ten bucks. Its moderate torque drive works very well
in this application. Do not use your primary turntable for these
procedures, due to the stress and wear which will be exerted on the main
bearing and suspension.
You'll also need two record mats. Wash one with dishwashing liquid, rinse,
then rinse again with any alcohol based record cleaning solution (or use a
diluted alcohol solution). You want to remove all residues from this mat.
Then dry it carefully. This will be your clean mat; it must come into
contact with only the cleaned side of a record. Keep your fingers off of
the record supporting surface. The second mat will be used only under the
uncleaned side of a record.
Step 1 in this cleaning procedure requires sterile cotton pads. I use
quilted cotton squares sold for use with infants and for cosmetics
application. You can use plain cotton wadding sold in drug stores but it is
trickier to handle and more expensive.
Buy a number of small nylon bristle brushes, which will be used to clean
the various record brushes used throughout the procedure. I use fingernail
brushes, but any small brush with a handle, which keeps your fingers from
touching the bristles will do. You'll also need a small, clean bowl in
which to soak the brushes. First wash the bristle brushes, as you washed
the clean record mat, but be sure not to scrub them with your hands;
instead, use another brush and rub them together.
Pour some undiluted isopropyl alcohol into the bowl and soak the brushes
for about 15 minutes. Since you'll be making frequent use of these
bristle-brushes to wipe your record brushes clean, you want to make sure
they carry no lubricants and/or contaminants which could be transferred
from brush to brush and onto the record surface.
You'll be using several record cleaning hand brushes. The first can be any
sort of dust grabbing felt or carbon fiber brush, such as an old
Discwasher, Parastat, etc. It will be used only for top layer dust removal
of an uncleaned disc surface. Never use it on a cleaned disc. The other
brushes you'll need are two Allsop Orbitracs (the Orbitrac was out of
production when this piece originally ran, but is now again in production,
in part due to my lobbying and agitation. However, it now uses easily
replaceable cartridges, so one Orbitrac will do, but be sure to use
different cartridges for the two steps in Wayne's piece'MF).
This is the most effective record groove scrubbing device I have tested to
date, and it is crucial to successfully accomplishing the procedure
The key to the Orbitrac's superb effectiveness is its pads which change
from pure white to sickly yellow as they absorb groove contaminants. The
Orbitrac's pads are replaceable. Other hand brushes are nothing more than
highly effective grease applicators, spreading unwanted substances from one
disc to the next.
Obtain several handsized spray bottles'preferably chemistry lab grade glass
bottles'if you can find them. Glass is basically inert and will not react
with the various solutions we'll be using. I have also used plastic bottles
with no problems. Be sure to rinse the interior of each spray
bottle'including the intake stem'several times with isopropyl alcohol,
finishing with Nitty-Gritty First solution.
Since the cleaning solutions which end up on your records will come from
these bottles, be very certain that they are contaminant free.
Once these atomizer bottles are clean and dry, fill one with Nitty Gritty
First fluid, then quickly cap the original supply bottle and apply tape
around the cap seam to help prevent evaporation. This is the solution to be
used in step 1. Forr step 2 you may use any record cleaning solution you
wish as long as it is not the same as the solution you apply when vacuuming
your discs (principle 1).
I prefer alcohol bearing fluids since they are the most effective in
cleaning raw, dirty records. The solution I use for step 2 consists of 80%
VPI Record Cleaning Fluid and 20% of the purest alcohol I can obtain. I
advise against using drug store grade 91% isopropyl alcohol as I have found
that it leaves a substantial residue.
If you can't obtain chemically pure alcohol (99% or better), you may safely
use a grain alcohol such as Everclear (94%), which is sold in liquor stores
to those harty (or foolish) enough to use it for other than practical
applications. Do not use vodka.
The first step is of key importance. If carried out effectively, the entire
process will be more successful. Begin by removing the loose dust on the
record surface with your felt brush (Discwasher etc.). You simply want to
wipe off some surface dust. Be sure to place your 'dirty' record mat'not
the clean mat'on your cleaning turntable.
Next, spray some First fluid on some cotton wadding. If using quilted
cotton squares (preferred), make a three layer pad, being careful not to
touch the surface, which will come into contact with the disc.
As the record rotates, spray First directly on the lead-in groove area of
the record's surface, while holding the pad against the same section. Since
this maneuver requires some experience to perfect, you might want to
practice on a few reject LPs.
Never touch the part of the cotton pad or wadding which comes into contact
with the record surface. The aim here is to remove contaminants, not to
reapply them. Also, never use the part of the cotton wad you grip as a
The appropriately named Nitty-Gritty First solution is the most effective
solvent I have ever tested for initial loosening of oily, gummy,
contaminants such as tobacco tar, silicone cloth goop, hand oils, and the
like. It also effectively removes used record store price stickers from
album jackets, and the glue sometimes left behind if you do manage to peel
After several revolutions you'll have a good idea of how clean or dirty the
disc really is. Dirty discs of the tobacco/hand
oil/silicone/unknown-substance-from-Mars variety will leave a
yellow-brownish (or sometimes grey-blackish) band smeared across your
If your previously vacuumed disc reveals this kind of filth, you will
instantly know the error of your ways. Clean the outer section again, using
either a clean, untouched portion of your cotton pad, or a fresh one.
Continue until further passes no longer deposit any filth on the pad.
Once you have satisfactorily cleaned the outer edge, repeat the process in
sections, moving inward to the center of the disc. Be careful no to touch
the contact surface of the cotton pad, and use a fresh one whenever it
begins to show even a faint yellow stain. Don't cheap out here.
You will find that the record's filthiest portions'often by a wide
margin'are the outer and inner areas. Avoid getting any cleaning fluid on
the record label, which is liable to bleach and turn white.
Having finished applying and wiping an entire record side with moderate to
large amounts of First, you may notice some wet spots. Allow them to
evaporate dry. This is the only fluid with which you may do this. NEVER
ALLOW ANY OTHER FLUIDS TO EVAPORATE DRY ON A DISC SURFACE. All fluids must
either be absorbed, vacuumed, or diluted by other fluids lest they lelave a
groove fouling residue. Letting First evaporate actually increases its
effectiveness since the remaining residue continues to loosen foreign
contaminants from the groove walls.
Here we'll wash away First residue, microscopic particulate matter, and any
remaining substances not loosened by step one. We'll also effectively but
gently scrub the vinyl, cleaning down to the groove bottom'something plain
vacuuming does not accomplish.
We'll do this using the Orbitrac. But first you must brush the surface of a
virgin Orbitrac pad with one of the previously mentioned hand brushes, in
order to remove lint and any other large particles possibly trapped in the
pad filaments. Brush carefully: a hard particle trapped in an Orbitrac pad
can scratch a disc surface.
We will be using two Orbitracs: one for cleaning, the other for mopping and
drying. After you've brushed the Orbitrac pad, spray it wi some of the
alcohol based fluid you've previously prepared. Use enough to make it wet,
but not saturated to the point where it drips.
Turn off the turntable. Take a small portion of cotton wadding (or wear a
loose, clean plastic glove) and use it to apply enough pressure against the
record edge to hold it stationary. Don't let your bare finger touch the
Following the simple directions which come with the Orbitrac, rotate it
over the record using your free hand. After several revolutions, stop and
examine the Orbitrac's pad. If only the faintest signs of yellow show,
quickly take a second bristle brush and vigorously brush the pad surface.
Reapply the alcohol-based fluid to the Orbitrac and repeat the above.
If, on the other hand, your initial pad examination turns up clearly yellow
or yellow-brownish (or worse) stains, that is an indication that you have
not successfully carried out step one: your disc is still filthy and will
foul every brush surface with which it comes into contact'including your
vacuum suction brush. Repeat Step one'or switch to CDs. When you return to
Step 2 be sure to start with a fresh Orbitrac pad.
When your Orbitrac-ing leaves no yellow on the pad, use the second Orbitrac
to dry the disc. Start with a dry pad and don't worry if the disc is not
bone dry when you're done. Wipe the wet-cleaning Orbitrac pad with one of
the bristle brushes, spray some fluid on the Orbitrac pad and repeat the
wet cleaning followed by the dry one.
Next, we'll vacuum (at last!). The purpose of the drying Orbitrac is to
remove any gross contaminants from the record. The vacuum's only purpose is
to remove minute levels of fluid residue, which is all that should remain
once you've completed step one's top-of-the groove wall pre-cleaning and
step two's deep-groove-wall Orbitrac cleaning.
Simply apply your fluid of choice and vacuum. I prefer to evenly spread a
large quantity of VPI record cleaning fluid across the disc using a
non-abrasive felt applicator like the one Audio Advisor supplies with the
Nitty Gritty vacuum machines. Stiffer brushes'the ones VPI packs with its
machines'are also effective.
A large quantity of fluid insures both complete groove penetration and the
removal of anything remaining in the grooves. Extra fluid also requires
longer vacuuming time, which also increases the chances of getting
everything sucked out of the grooves.
Observe the disc being vacuumed under good lightning: you'll find that
thorough fluid removal requires more revolutions than you probably thought
necessary. What appear to be groove modulations may actually be residual
fluid wedged into tiny crevices. Remember, any fluid not sucked from the
grooves may obscure low level resolution and inner detail or result in
audible noise. Once the record is dry, re-apply fluid and vacuum a second
When you repeat step 1 to clean the opposite side of the disc, be sure to
use the clean record mat under the just-cleaned side of the record. If you
own a VPI cleaning machine, be sure to place the clean mat under the just
cleaned side when you vacuum. Use the clean mat for all subsequent vacuum
cleanings of records you have washed using this regimen.
There is one additional step you can take to make this cleaning regimen
even more effective. Obtain a supply of triple distilled water (Triple
distilled water, available at some pharmacies, is not easy to come by: when
I tried to obtain some in NYC, the pharmacist accused me of being either an
abortionist or an intravenous drug user. In fact, it requires a doctor's
prescription in New York. Perhaps it is easier to obtain where you live,
either at a pharmacy, or a chemical supply house. You could use plain
distilled water, but be careful: if it hasn't been properly manufactured,
you could leave a residue of noise, depositing minerals in the grooves,
thus defeating the entire purpose of this complex, time consuming
procedure'MF). Use it between each step described above, to purge or
effectively dilute all chemical residues remaining in the grooves. So,
after performing step 1, repeat with triple distilled water using cotton
wadding or pads. After performing step 2, follow up with triple distilled
water. After your first vacuuming, do likewise.
Now that you have a really clean record, it makes no sense to return it to
its original smelly, oily, decades old vinyl-leaching inner sleeve. Use a
fresh, new sleeve (I like rice paper ones'MF). You can also clean disc
covers quite effectively using Formula 409 and plain old paper towels.
Avoid using Fantastic, which contains a powerful pine perfume that seems to
stick to album covers forever. 409 will remove the aged, mildew-moss
appearing wear, as well as a good deal of ring wear. Try it. Be sure to
allow the cover to dry thoroughly before replacing it on your shelf or the
residual moisture may grow mildew.
When your cleaning session is over, take yet another bristle brush and wipe
your final fluid applicator so it dries quickly. Run the vacuum to allow
the suction nozzle and its pads to dry. If you own a manual machine such as
a Record Doctor, gently brush the suction pads to and fro as you run the
While the entire process described herein may seem hopelessly complex, in
practice it is logical and straightforward, albeit time consuming. Do no
take short cuts: they will lessen the effectiveness of the procedure and
may lead to the contamination of record cleaning pads and the soiling of
all subsequent discs which come into contact with them. Unless the record
is very clean to begin with, follow the entire procedure or don't bother at
all. Follow these instructions carefully and you're sure to be pleased with