Audio Files: Record Rules

Keep your vinyl sounding great

RCA Discwasher D4 kit
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Nitty Gritty Model 1.0
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Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional
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Hunt EDA Mark 6 brush
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What’s the easiest and most satisfying way to collect jazz recordings? For me, it’s digging through the crates at a used record store or swap meet. Sometimes my finds can be incredible, like a pristine pressing of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s The Inner Mounting Flame with ’70s newspaper clippings about the band stuffed into the sleeve. But sometimes they’re dicey, like a copy of Lee Morgan’s ¡Caramba! hanging filthy and half-naked out of a ripped cardboard sleeve.

Although there’s more new jazz coming out on vinyl these days, many fans are playing decades-old platters acquired from all sorts of sources. With proper care, these records can usually deliver an extraordinary listening experience. Without proper care, they’ll give you muddy sound marred by incessant pops and clicks. The good news is that proper record storage is easy, and deep record cleaning can cost less than a couple drinks and cover charges at a Manhattan jazz club.

Mr. Clean

The first step to proper record care is making sure your records are clean-and that goes triple for records bought at swap meets or garage sales. Effective record cleaning involves application of a fluid cleaner to loosen the grime, gentle scrubbing with a brush, and drying the record thoroughly. The tools to do this cost anywhere from $20 to $4,000.

The least expensive way to clean your records is by purchasing a kit that includes cleaning fluid and a record-cleaning brush, such as the $20 RCA Discwasher D4 package. First, put a few drops of the fluid on the front edge of the brush, and use the bottom of the fluid bottle to spread the fluid evenly across the edge. After putting the record on your turntable and placing the brush gently on the record with the front edge tilted toward the grooves, turn the record a couple of times manually, then dry it off by spinning the record against the rear edge of the pad. It works fairly well, but I noticed a significant improvement when I switched to the Spin-Clean machine, which starts at $80.

The Spin-Clean is a long, thin plastic bathtub made just for your records. Fill the tub with warm water and a splash of cleaning fluid, then slide the record between the Spin-Clean brushes. Rollers hold the record in place so it aligns with the brushes and the label stays dry. Spin the record three times, dry it with the supplied super-soft cloth and you’re done. I immediately heard clearer sound and fewer pops and clicks in my records after I bought the Spin-Clean. Note that the cleaning fluid doesn’t work on 78-rpm Shellac records, but for those you can use a non-alcohol-based fluid or water.

The downside of the Spin-Clean is that every time I use it, I end up with a couple dozen records leaned against my living room wall to dry; the supplied cloth never quite does the job. The solution is a vacuum-equipped record-cleaning machine, which thoroughly removes moisture from the record after cleaning. These run from $485 for the Nitty Gritty Model 1.0 to $4,000 for the Clearaudio Double Matrix Professional, the main difference being in the level of automation. For example, some spin the record for you (the Double Matrix) while others require you spin the record manually (the Model 1.0). For serious collectors with thousands of records, one of these machines can be a great investment because of the time and mess it’ll save.

I clean all used records after I buy them, but following that I rarely clean them again. However, most of my records get played no more than half a dozen times a year. If you have favorites you spin over and over, you’ll probably want to clean them more often.

You often need to sweep the dust off your records, though, and for that a dry record-cleaning brush does the trick. The one stipulation is that it should have carbon-fiber bristles, which are fine enough to get into the grooves and don’t build up a static charge. I use the $30 Hunt EDA Mark 6 brush, primarily because all the other vinyl fanatics I know use it.

Straight Life

Once your records are clean, you want to keep them that way-and keep them from warping, too. The number one tip for record storage, one that I see so many music fans violating, is to store your records standing straight up, not flat. This is the best way to keep them from warping, and it also makes it easier to find the record you want.

Some vinyl neophytes discard the inner paper sleeve that protects the record. This is a big mistake, because moving a bare record in and out of the cardboard outer sleeve can scratch it. Of course, a lot of people lose the sleeves, and a lot of used records don’t have them. That’s why one of the first purchases any jazz vinyl fan should make is a pack of replacement sleeves. There are several varieties available; I prefer nice, stiff paper sleeves with plastic linings, which typically cost about $20 for a pack of 50.

It goes without saying that you should store your records away from direct sunlight and any source of heat, such as a radiator or vent. Otherwise, if you keep ’em clean, keep ’em straight and keep ’em sleeved, your records should still be sounding great long after you’ve followed Bird and Miles into the great beyond.