Record care

This is a topic readers keep asking me about. They are really asking the wrong person as I take horrible care of my records. I do own and use (once in a while when the debris on the record gets so thick that I can no longer read the label or cram the record back into the jacket) a Keith Monks record cleaning machine (kind of the Loco mobile of record cleaning products –built like a World War I tank and nearly as heavy – and expensive). I had met Keith Monks (reminds me much of “M” in the James Bond movies) several times at trade shows and he knew I was kind of an audio “expert.” Thus at the first trade show after I had acquired the Keith Monks record cleaner, I ran across Keith again, conversing with a group of magazinewriters. Mr. Monks spotted me and waved me over saying, “Frank, good to see you again. What do you think of the record cleaning machine we just sold you?” It was the wrong question to ask me just then and I couldn't help myself. I answered, as all the writers gathered around,“Well Keith, I am not too happy with it. It has got lots of rumble, the speed accuracy isn’t too hot, the arm geometry is all wrong, its really tough to mount a cartridge in it, and that single lousy little thread running up the arm only gives me mono performance.” Needless to say, the writers were giving me very strange looks and Keith was looking a bit flustered (much like “M” after a call from Bond). I then continued, “But then I got it figured out, its a record cleaning machine, not a record playing machine – your directions were not very clear.” At that point the group broke up laughing and Keith looked even more flustered. I was “on a roll” and went on, “But darn it, Mr. Monks, I am still not satisfied with it (all this with a completely serious expression). It will not take off solder blobs, it does’t remove cigarette burns, and it is just absolutely useless in dealing with footprints. It really does not work well for me at all.” By this time Keith’s mouth was hanging wide open, his cheeks red, and the rest of the group was rolling on the floor laughing. Finally, with a big “sputter”, Keith (really a very nice and very British person) realized I was pulling his leg. (English audio designers just are not used to my brand of humour). I doubt if he will ever forget my on the spot “product endorsement” and I am sure he warned other British manufacturers to beware of me. As I said earlier, I am the wrong person to ask about record care. However, I will talk a bit about the record cleaning products I have used. The Keith Monks record cleaning machine is probably the best (if still available and if you don’t mind shelling out $1500+ for it – it was about $800 when I got mine many years ago). This guy has a heavy turntable platter that holds the record, a brush on a swing arm that comes over the record and lowers (by hand), a hand pump to dump a mix of distilled water and methanol (50-50) on the record through the brush, and you run the brush saturated wet on the spinning record until all the lumps are dissolved. Then (the secret of the machine) you turn on the built in vacuum pump, swing the vacuum arm (looks a bit like a very ugly tonearm) over the label, and set it down on the still spinning record surface. The plastic nozzle is held off the record by the thickness of a thread that is pulled through the arm by the vacuum and reeled up inside the machine. The arm is slowly driven outward by another typically British mechanism sucking all the fluid off the record, including dissolved debris, leaving the record surface clean and dry and sounding clear and as tick and pop free as it is ever going to get again. It is a very clever machine. I have never used any of the newer, less expensive record cleaning machines (such as the Nitty-Gritty) and cannot give you an opinion about them. There is also some debate over what mix of solvents to use in the Keith Monks cleaner and all I can say is that I have used the brew mentioned above for many years now and have not noticed any damage at all caused by the solution (cleaned many times). I can also endorse LAST. This two step cleaning kit (one vat of cleaner, another of preservative) seems to work well too and I have not seen any build-up of chemicals or damage to records cleaned with LAST. As with the Keith Monks, cleaned records sound better but the LAST is not quite as thorough as the 100 times as expensive Keith Monks. I am not so sure about LAST stylus cleaner though. The liquid may work its way up the cantilever and into the suspension and I suspect no stylus cleaning solvent is going to do the elastic components of the stylus suspension any long term good. I do not use liquids to clean stylus assemblies (except as a last resort for totally gummed up fuzz ball stylus tips). I am not happy with the Discwasher cleaning system. I cannot seem to hold onto the damn brush reliably and I have had it slip out of my hand while using it, tumble across the record making big “skid marks” and whomp into the tonearm, breaking the cartridge stylus. After this happened the second time, I relegated the awkward Discwasher brush to a less damaging (and also useful) task – shining shoes. I have been told that the Discwasher anti-staticion gun can also put cheap digital watches to sleep (permanently) so be careful where you point that thing (certainly not at your Apple or floppies). I occasionally use Gruv-Glide on badly worn old records to put them into playable condition (it removes the worst of the distortion), but since it contains a powerful solvent (toxic) I suspect it is removing a lot of the vinyl along with the ticks, pops, and harshness and do not use it on records in good condition. Let the record dry for at least a day after using this stuff or the stylus will pick up a lot of goo from the record which is difficult to remove from the stylus. Watch out for “sticky” surfaced after-market turntable mats (Audioquest, Oracle, Fulton, etc). You must keep them very clean (take them off and wash them often) as the surface picks up dirt and grit and can permanently imbed it into the record surface when the record is placed on the mat. You may think you are doing a great job of keeping the top surface of the record clean, while the bottom surface is being destroyed. The after-market turntable mat we like best is the Tri-Pad, by Eon of Canada. Monster Cable did sell it, but I don’t know who distributes it now. It is a light, thin, damped cork mat that works very well. I normally use a Decca Brush before playing my records. It is a carbon-fiber brush with jillions of soft bristles that does a good job of dedusting the record before and after play (I use it to clean stylus tips too). It also tends to destatic the records if used properly. I am not happy with any of the brushes built into cartridges as they act as additional stylus assemblies, picking up and coupling the record vibrations back into the cartridge and tone arm in the wrong places. Actually, the best way to keep records clean and free of ticks and pops is to not get them dirty in the first place. The record should go from jacket, to turntable, played with dustcover down, and then back to the jacket with minimum exposure to airborne dust. Keep the turntable and stylus clean, and your records will play well for years. 

Note that “taping your records” isn’t an answer. The dubbed tape is of much poorer quality than the record, and the tape wears out faster than the record does! Master alignment tapes are only good for 4 - 6 passes across a tape recorder head before the highs drop off enough to make their pre-calibrated response worthless. That oxide dust building up on your tape heads and on the guides and pulleys contains a lot of the music – gone. 0f course the heads attempt (successfully) to demagnetize the tape a little bit more with each play. So the noise builds up and the highs go away. You must demagnetize the tape recorder heads each time it is turned on if you want even mid-fi long-term results. (The turn-on and turn-off transients of most tape recorders immediately magnetize the heads enough to take the machine out of specification.) Finally, I have found a sure way of getting much better sonic quality from most modern hard rock records. You clamp the record into the disc sander attachment of a typical 1/4" electric drill. Turn drill on and press record surfaces against a large Brillo pad for approximately 30 seconds per side. This technique is guaranteed to remove all annoying noises from the rock record and if followed up by an application of a damp rag saturated with Comet sink cleaner the record will have on a much quieter, and much more musical, playback quality.

Frank Van Alstine