By Tim Neely
Question: My husband told me when he was younger he used to clean his albums with rubbing alcohol because that was all they had and it didn’t damage them. We have some that haven’t been played in months, and I want the dust removed before I play them. Can I use rubbing alcohol?
Answer: The short answer: Yes. But there are better ways. And never, ever use alcohol on a 78.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. There’s no question that a clean record is a better-sounding record. A clean record also will help your equipment, especially the stylus on your turntable, last longer. And there’s some evidence to suggest that playing a dirty record also will hurt the record in the long run.
Most commercial record-cleaning liquids contain some combination of water, alcohol and a surfactant. Because there is some belief (though it’s not proven) that long-term use of alcohol on records might have a negative effect on the vinyl, some newer solutions don’t use alcohol at all. For short-term use, though, it shouldn’t be a problem. In the olden days, I used to use window cleaner on my 45s and albums, and it worked reasonably well.
The process of cleaning a record isn’t as simple as deciding what liquid to use, however. It’s best to place the record on a clean surface; a couple lint-free towels on a countertop or table will work.
Only clean one side of a record at a time. Apply the liquid liberally to the grooved area; never get it on the label, as liquids can leave residue or cause other damage. The best way to thoroughly saturate a record is to use a very gentle brush, one that won’t scratch the record; indeed, you might want to apply the liquid directly to the brush rather than to the record.
As mentioned earlier, never, ever use an alcohol-based cleaner on a 78! Because of the way the records were manufactured, alcohol can loosen the bonds between the two sides of a 78 and cause them to separate, causing permanent damage. Gentle soapy water is the best non-commercial liquid to clean a 78.
Far more important than what liquid you use to clean the record, though, is how you then remove that liquid. All that gunk that the liquid has loosened is still there, only closer to the surface. Don’t let the wet record dry in the air! Only the liquid has evaporated; the dirt may not be visible, but it remains behind.
The best way to dry a wet record by hand is to use a microfiber-based towel or cloth, an option that didn’t exist a few years ago but is becoming more common. (The best older solution is a chamois-based cloth.) These are better than ordinary bath towels or paper towels because they don’t leave lint or dust behind. If you have trouble finding microfiber towels in the bath section of a department store, try the car-care section, because they’ve become quite popular among car buffs.
After you’ve thoroughly dried one side, repeat the process on the other side.
If you grew up with a turntable in the 1970s and into the 1980s, you probably at some point either had, or knew someone who had, a Discwasher. They consisted of a brush and a cleaning fluid; you applied the fluid to the brush, let the record spin, applied the liquid to the record using the brush, then rotated the brush to clean off the liquid with a dry part of the brush. Many people swore by them, but for some reason, my records often sounded worse after using the Discwasher system than before. But maybe that was just me.
Over time, you may decide that hand-cleaning your records is a pain, especially if you have a large collection. At that point, investing in a record-cleaning machine becomes a good idea. The best ones — two well-known brands are Nitty Gritty and VPI — combine the wetting and drying the record into one continuous process.
Better yet, the drying takes place with a vacuum that sucks the fluid off the record completely. A good cleaning machine, however, requires a significant monetary investment of at least in the hundreds of dollars. But if you have a large collection, it’s worth it. I never felt that my records were really deep-down clean until I started using a machine a few years ago.