Vinyl records have made a real resurgence, with recent sales figures reaching their highest since 1996. In fact, vinyl has experienced such an extensive rejuvenation that suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand whilst sales of other physical formats – such as CD – have long been in decline.
The exact reason for vinyls rebirth is up for debate. But what’s certain, is that the growth of a format once written off as obsolete shows no signs of waning. So much of our lives are now stored digitally, which is great. But as the need for physical ‘stuff’ dwindles, more and more folks are turning to vinyl for something with a little more ‘soul’. And who can blame them? The artwork is more significant, the process of putting a record on is extremely gratifying, and when mastered correctly, vinyl editions of albums often have greater dynamic range than their CD or digital file equivalent.
When all is said and done, vinyl has its unique characteristics that some listeners prefer. But, it also comes with its own set of challenges and some extra maintenance. On the one hand, well cared for records can last a lifetime and then some. On the other hand, poorly looked after records will quickly become worthless and unlistenable. The following are some tips to keep your records sounding groovy for many years to come.
Step one is the proper storage of your precious records when they’re not in use. First, always store your records vertically and away from extreme temperature or humidity changes to prevent warping. Never lay your records flat as this is a sure way to warp them over time. Secondly, dust and dirt are the audiophiles worst enemy, and the best weapon here is prevention. Always store your records in their sleeve and place them inside the cover. The aim of the game is to keep the amount of time that a record is exposed to airborne dust and dirt particles to an absolute minimum. You can also give records an extra layer of protection by storing them in plastic outer sleeves.
Second in the war against damaging dust and dirt is the inner sleeves that hold your record inside the cover. The paper sleeves that typically ship with records do little to protect the record from static that can attract dust and dirt. The safest way to protect your records over time from dust and chemical reactions is to use polyethylene lined sleeves. The lining of a poly sleeve is both soft on your records and keeps static to a minimum – good news for keeping the dust at bay.
It might seem obvious, but handling your records in the correct way is imperative to keeping them clean. If dust and dirt are the vinyl enthusiasts worst enemy and the best tactic is prevention, you’ll want to avoid getting them so dirty in the first place by keeping your mitts off those delicate grooves! The long and short of it is: don’t touch any part of the record which contains information. Instead, handle your record carefully by the edges and the inner label.
Additionally, be sure to use a carbon fibre brush to remove any surface dust carefully both before and after playing your record. If your turntable has a lid, it’s well worth closing it during playback to minimise the risk of airborne dust reaching the record surface.
Cleaning Your Records
Even with the utmost of care and the most meticulous of storage solutions, your records will occasionally benefit from a good clean. There are many opinions on how to clean vinyl records in the correct way, to the point where there is almost a pseudoscience surrounding the whole topic. There are, however, a few commonly listed techniques, which can help to restore the sonic quality of your records if dust and or dirt has become problematic.
Cleaning becomes particularly important if you buy your records used; as dirt, oil, and dust will no doubt be present – all of which will just plain damage your stylus over time.
So how do you go about cleaning records?
First things first, always clean the dust off your records using a carbon fibre brush before commencing to wet-cleaning records. Failure to do so will only risk pushing dust further into the grooves, or simply moving lose dirt around. Now that we’ve cleared that one up, here are some common methods for further deep cleaning:
By far the most effective way to clean records – particularly on mass – is to use a vacuum based cleaning system. Such systems typically have the record placed on a platter while a vacuum literally sucks up the applied cleaning solution along with the dirt and grime. Sadly, such systems are also prohibitively expensive and require a lot of maintenance and space. The good news is, there are a number of affordable alternatives, which can yield great results.
The first method is to use a manual record cleaning machine, such as the Spin Clean Record Washer. Compact machines, such as Spin Clean require some investment up front, but can also save you a lot of time and effort – particularly if you have a large vinyl collection. They work by literally giving your records a bath using cleaning solution and distilled water. All you have to do is gently spin the record through the cleaning solution while the built-in brushes do the hard work of gently lifting dirt.
If you’re on a budget, you can still get great results with hand cleaning methods – albeit more time-consuming. Place your record on a soft, lint-free surface and apply a mixture of record cleaning solution and distilled water. Tap water should be avoided as it can contain mineral deposits or lime scale that can damage your record. Once the solution is applied, gently clean your record in the direction of the grooves using a micro-fibre cloth or pad. Next, use a separate micro-fibre cloth to dry the record and repeat the process if necessary. I personally use Clear Groove record cleaning solution, which is specially developed not to leave a residue and includes a micro-fibre cloth – works for me anyhow.
Note: After some significant testing, I’ve recently switched to a new cleaning solution (Vinyl Revival). The new solution contains no alcohol and works more effectively, in my experience.
The cleaning methods listed above should be enough to clean your record and improve the audio clarity. Remember, though, a damaged record will remain damaged despite any cleaning process. Always handle your records with respect and maintain your turntable to reduce wear.
Stylus & Turntable Setup/Maintenance
As briefly touched on above, dirt and grime is a sure way to damage your stylus over time. Equally, a damaged stylus or poorly setup & aligned tone-arm can irreparably damage your vinyl. The good news is, clean, well looked after records, combined with correct turntable setup can last a lifetime and beyond. With this in mind, it makes sense to invest your time and money wisely into getting things just right.
If you’ve purchased a new turntable, you’re in luck, as most of them now come set up with the cartridge pre-fitted and aligned. If you’ve purchased or inherited a used one on the other hand, you’ll need to check a few things to ensure it won’t cause damage. Since this post is about caring for your records, I’ll stick to the basics for now, and we can go into the details of how to set up your turntable correctly in another post. A good place to check is your manufacturers guidelines, but, generally speaking, here’s what’s important.
- A worn stylus can permanently damage your records. If you’re unsure about the condition, play on the safe side and replace it.
- Your stylus can (as described earlier) become dirty and require cleaning to maintain good sound quality and to preserve stylus life. For this, you’ll need a carbon fibre stylus brush and some cleaning fluid to gently remove dirt. Be very careful though; the stylus and its shank are very delicate and should be handled with care. Please refer to your manufacturers instructions for the recommended method.
- Always set your tone arm counterweight in accordance with your cartridge requirements. If the weight is not set correctly, your tonearm could suffer a loss of performance or even be causing record wear.
- Also key to avoiding excessive wear and maintaining great sound is the alignment of your cartridge. Having correct alignment is crucial as it affects how your stylus sits inside the record grooves. If the alignment is out, your stylus could be applying excess pressure to the walls of your record grooves, and subsequently cause damage. Specialist equipment can be purchased to precisely align your cartridge, but you can also get good results using free paper alignment protractors – available to download at vinylengine.com
- Finally – and often misunderstood – is the anti-skate counterweight. I will go into further detail about how to set this at a later date, but in a nutshell, setting this correctly will prevent your tonearm from ridding up the side of the groove and increasing record wear. Not to mention the increased sound quality that comes with encouraging the stylus to sit centrally in the groove.
The Bottom Line
There is a certain magic and allure to vinyl that has seen the format endure much change over the last three decades. Purists love the format for its physical connection. And, with the right maintenance and care, vinyl records can go on delivering for many years to come – providing what I feel is certainly the most romantic way to consume music. Let us not be deluded, however, as vinyl is certainly not without its faults. In fact, when all is said and done, the production quality and the final mastering have the greatest impact on the final audio quality no matter what the end format. Nevertheless, if you like the physical product and you’re prepared to put in a little extra ground work to maintain your collection – collecting vinyl can be one of the most rewarding ways to consume music.
I hope the information in this article provides a great base for the basic maintenance required to preserve your vinyl. If you have any tips or personal approaches you’d like to add, I’d welcome your comments below. Finally, the links provided in this piece to equipment you can use to maintain your collection are all affiliate links. If any of the suggestions would help and you feel like to helping me out in my capacity to continue delving similar content in the name of better sound – clicking and buying a product will result in sound matters receiving a small cut at no extra cost to you. Just want to be up front about that.
Cheers, and happy listening.
Edit: Check out part 2 of this article for further tips on vinyl record care and maintenance.