No, this is not from my forthcoming book of lame hi-fi poetry. This stems from experience in a lesser known aspect of record collecting, and one few outside of it would care about, never mind associating it with being zen, or capable of producing a zen-like state.
I’m talking about cleaning vinyl with a motorised record-cleaning machine (RCM). I say this because it is a rather hypnotic exercise to engage in, usually taking place in the calm of one’s home, several hours after the buzz of crate digging a coveted pressing has faded.
I’m often asked why and how I clean my record collection. The answer to the former is simple, something like “I want to hear the music just like the day that album was pressed.” But, being honest, that’s only part of it. It’s also because I want my phono cartridges to last and not be forced to prematurely drop large sums of money on stylus repairs incurred by filthy LPs. After all, that’s dosh that could be spent on rare grooves.
The latter requires more detail, as it’s a process honed over several years evolution cleaning at least 800 LPs, and is, I’m sure, not a story any normal person would want recounted. Yet, here we are.
...it is a rather hypnotic exercise to engage in, usually taking place in the calm of one’s home, several hours after the adrenaline of crate digging a coveted pressing has faded. – Rafe Arnott
These days, surrounded by stacks of Discogs deliveries and recent covid finds (the lack of people scouring the bins at local record shops has been a boon to patient LP hunters), I find myself preparing ingredients for the tea ceremony that using an RCM requires: distilled, water, isopropyl alcohol, and Kodak Photo Flo.
I use an old recipe solemnly given to me by a friend about eight or nine years ago who mumbled “keep it secret, keep it safe,” as they shoved an over-folded, faded piece of xeroxed paper into my hand. It has consistently improved on other recipes or store bought mixes I’ve tried (I’ve yet to crack my bottle of L’art du Son). So, I’m going to share it. And hopefully, unlike G.O.B. from Arrested Development who is black balled by the Alliance of Magicians for inadvertently revealing the secret of an illusion, I won’t suffer reprisals for this:
Let’s now discuss what will be pulling said solution from the dirty grooves you’ll be presenting it with: a machine that sucks.
There are many machines that perform this task in close to identical ways (using a vacuum motor to suck fluid infused with accumulated grime and residue from the LP’s surface). There are even some who go further in their engineering complexity, allowing for the programming of physically cleaning and vacuuming the albums for you. These can cost upwards of $5,000 USD and utilise ultrasonic cleaning technologies. I ended up with a basic Okki Nokki several years ago ($599 USD) simply because there was one available at my local bricks and mortar for a good price. It has served me without a single issue other than having to order replacement velvet strips that the vacuum wand is equipped with to facilitate a seal on the record surface. This was after normal wear from cleaning hundreds of LPs and cost less than $10. A true bargain of hi-fi.
Preparations for record cleaning involve hauling the unit off the shelf where it resides, placing it on a clean, flat surface with room for several albums and various paraphernalia – new inner and outer sleeves, a drying rack, anti-static gun, a dampened piece of paper towel (to wipe down the RCM platter between LPs), cleaning brushes, etc. I have friends who have dedicated tables or areas for this task. I, on the other hand, spread everything in front of my sofa like a takeout meal and proceed from there.
Placing an album on the RCM platter, I make sure it is flat, and tighten the lug to secure it (do not crank it down – just finger tight). I then start the motor to rotate counter-clockwise and proceed to soak down the LP – too little liquid and you will not achieve the desired coverage over its surface, too much and it will leak over the sides. If you look at the accompanying images, you will notice the application amount – it’s basically one rotation’s worth of back-and-forth stream from a small, 50ml eyedropper-type bottle.
Using the Okki-supplied goat’s hair brush, I distribute the solution by gently dragging the bristles perpendicular to the album until the surface tension remains solid, showing no grooves through. I then stop the motor and let the LP soak – dirty, older, used LPs, I usually let sit for two-three minutes, brand new ones 30 seconds to a minute – this helps loosen any embedded dirt or pressing residue. I then restart rotation and use a back-and-forth sawing motion perpendicular to the LP to gently scrub and loosen groove debris (for about 45 seconds). I then repeat the process in a clockwise rotation before hitting the separate vacuum motor switch and dropping the suction wand onto the record for two clockwise rotations. I then unscrew the lug, flip the album and do it all over again, but not before wiping down the platter mat with a damp paper towel to make sure the surface is slightly moist and clean (why place that pristine album surface on a dirty mat?).
I then neatly stack each cleaned LP vertically for about 15 minutes to air dry before re-sleeving (they are always slightly ‘humid” after cleaning). You can zap the LP afterwards with an anti-static gun if you notice buildup, but I find that the wiping of the rubberized RCM mat with a damp paper towel between cleanings cancels out any static buildup.
If you choose to follow these steps you will be presenting your pick-up cartridges with gleaming albums that are whisper quiet in the groove and should never require cleaning again. It’s a time-consuming effort, but should you allow yourself to get lost in the cadence of the process you may find yourself calmer, and more zen through the art of vinyl maintenance.