What Is The Safest And Most Efficient Means Of Getting A Record Perfectly Clean?
By Michael Baskin
ou’ve just spent a hour or more pawing through the used bins at a record store, which may be 30 to 100 miles from home and, amazingly found a rare pressing from the early 60’s. You’re thrilled and dying to play it when you get home, but it’s got dirty surfaces. What do you do?
You ask yourself: what is the safest and most efficient means of getting a record perfectly clean? How does one remove fingerprints, dust, grease, static charge, mildew and years of 20th century grunge from a record groove without causing any harm?
I thought this topic had been adequately discussed many years ago, but with the resurgence of the phono record it has become an enthusiast’s keynote once again.
As one of Nitty Gritty Record Care Products’ founders and after 40 years as an audiophile, I have learned a few things about the care, maintenance and workings of phonograph records. For one, I KNOW that any vinyl disc intended to reproduce music from the groove etched in its surface MUST be kept absolutely clean in order to sound its best. And I also KNOW that every foreign particle lodged in a record’s groove will cause noise and damage when contacted by a stylus.
Both are no brainers, right?
Before listening to this new prize, some would immediately reach for their trusty record brush. The old favorite was either the Discwasher or the Decca (or one of its knock-offs). To the naked eye their use makes a marked improvement in removing the dust and hair that gravitate to a record’s surface.
The problem, however, isn’t the stuff lying on top but the tiny particles that somehow find their way INTO the groove. FYI: you never see those particles because they’re too small for the naked eye to see.
The Discwasher system used a fluid that the user applied to the soft bristles of the brush before rubbing it over the surface of the disc. I’m not sure what the purpose of the fluid was, but I think it was intended to neutralize static and help the brush to pick up particles. Very little fluid was recommended and, consequently it didn’t have the ability to dissolve foreign materials from the record.
The Decca/Oracle/Audioquest brushes were dry systems. Their carbon fiber bristles were claimed to be fine enough to get into the grooves and the metal handle brush had a ground wire which the makers claimed removed static electricity. Their concept was: the bristles would sweep the dust towards the center of the disc and then either stick to the brush when it was lifted or it would land on the label where it did no harm.
To really find out how effective one of these brushes is you need more than your ears and eyes — you need a microscope. Not a big one — Panasonic used to make an inexpensive 50X, self-illuminating, hand-held model that worked perfectly.
Look at the grooves through the microscope before and after brushing. The results become obvious: these brushes do not get the particles out of the grooves. Basically, the dust looks exactly as it did before brushing. Simply stated: this method doesn’t get a record totally clean – not even close. The record’s most vital component is untouched by these brushes.
Put another way: Your Record Is Still Dirty!
When you play a record with this debris in the grooves, it wears faster and produces more clicks and pops. Not good enough for the dedicated collector! Not good enough for a record that may have cost upwards of $50.
A more serious method to clean records is represented by the record ‘bathing’ products. The most common example is the Spin Clean. This system has been around for about 40 years but has recently made a big splash with collectors.
With this system, a narrow trough is filled with distilled water, a few caps full of special cleaning solution applied to cleaning brushes, the record inserted and then manually rotated in both directions. Next the record is lifted out of the bath and hand-dried with a cloth.
The bath does what the dry brushes cannot do: it gets into the grooves, dissolves most of whatever contaminates them and most of that floats off or is scrubbed off the record. The key word in that sentence is ‘most’ — maybe as much as 90% of the contamination is dissolved into the bath and removed.
How do we know that? The 50X microscope clearly shows some of the particles are still in the grooves after cleaning with this method. (And I can’t help but wonder what residue is being left behind due to the drying method.)
Curiously, no previous review of this product has ever involved the use of looking into the grooves with a microscope.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the bath method is far superior to the record cleaning brushes. Records cleaned using the bath sound a bit quieter (depending on how dirty they were), look noticeably cleaner (ditto) and should last significantly longer than if they had not been cleaned.
It needs to be reiterated that records cleaned using this method are not perfectly clean but I also have to mention that the Spin Clean system is messy and a bit tedious.
Furthermore, this cleansing method does not lend itself to cleaning a single record – rather it is a mandate for washing a batch of 30 to 40 records at a time which this audiophile finds a bit oppressive and completely boring, but maybe that’s just me.
At the price of $129 for the Spin Clean with plenty of cleaning fluid* and proprietary brushes, it’s a bargain compared to the absolute best record cleaners that use vacuums and cost several times as much.
(At this juncture it seems appropriate for me to point out that I sold my interest in Nitty Gritty 22 years ago and have zero connection to that or any other company which makes record cleaning products.)
The first person to wet clean and vacuum dry a phonograph record was Keith Monks. The system he invented dates from the early 70’s and uses a full sized platter and tonearm-like suction nozzle that tracks a record from the label to the edge, vacuuming one or two tracks at a time. The Keith Monks is/was maddeningly slow to use but 100% effective: it perfectly cleans a record one side at a time in about 5 minutes.
Nitty Gritty’s inventor, Ken Erickson was regularly driving from Claremont, CA to Beverly Hills to clean his records on the Keith Monks machine at Jonas Miller Sound and one day asked me (while employed as a sales consultant there), “Isn’t there anything that I can afford to buy that can clean my records?” At the time (1980) my response was to fetch a Decca record brush and hold it up in front of him. His response, “Huh.” There simply was nothing in between them in performance or price.
Some time later Ken contacted me and wanted to show me his new invention: a vacuum attachment that cleaned records! After seeing it work, we decided that a machine incorporating its own vacuum would be more popular, formed a partnership and made history: the professional-yet-affordable record cleaning system was born.
The Nitty Gritty 1 had a solid oak cabinet that housed a powerful, flow-through vacuum and sold for $350. The user placed the record on a label-sized platter, applied our proprietary cleaning fluid to the top side, scrubbed it with an included brush and then flipped it over, turned on the vacuum and rotated the record with a wooden puck that was placed over the label. The vacuum was sucked through a narrow slot cut along the edge of a solid tube fixed to the top of the unit. In one or two revolutions it was bone dry and perfectly clean.
Yes, we did examine the grooves with a microscope to verify: perfectly clean.
About three months after we started selling our machines, Harry Weisfeld introduced his VPI record cleaner (after seeing the Nitty Gritty on display in New York) which combined elements of the Nitty Gritty and the Keith Monks.
Today there are numerous other companies producing similar professional style phono-graph record cleaning machines: Clear Audio, Loricraft, Moth, Okki Nokki and, yes, Keith Monks! They have prices that are equally diverse (including the Nitty Gritty & VPI), ranging from $400 to well over $5000 for the dual platter Keith Monks RCM Mk III. These machines all offer varying degrees of automation, but share one important performance trait: they all get a phono record perfectly clean.
The German made Okki Nokki looks to be a solid value at $600. It offers a quieter vacuum and semi automatic operation while housed in an attractive, modern-styled cabinet.
My pick for best-engineered cleaner is the Clear Audio Double Matrix at $4000. This machine cleans both sides of a record simultaneously in a minute, is housed in a handsome brushed aluminum chassis, is tolerably quiet and is rugged enough to clean 100 records in a row without fatigue or overheating.
Of course, if all you want to do is get your records perfectly clean, one at a time, don’t mind some manual involvement and aren’t particularly concerned with the aesthetics or noise, the Nitty Gritty 1.0 is 100% effective at 1/10th the price.
If the cost of the cheapest Nitty Gritty seems like a high price to pay, then I’d ask you to consider what you collection is worth. I’d wager for most reading this article the value of your collection to be 10 to 100 times the $400.
If you’re not using one of these pro style cleaners, your records are still dirty! The serious collector simply cannot afford NOT to own and use one of these cleaning systems.