By Patrick Prince
Remember the name Perfect Vinyl Forever.
For record collectors who have amassed a wealth of albums over the years, or the record dealer who buys many vinyl collections, it helps to have a record cleaning service handy that will save you time by doing the dirty work for you. And for a good clean, it's best to do it right. Perfect Vinyl Forever designs its own record cleaning equipment, so it uses cleaning innovations that go beyond standard record cleaning.
Goldmine had the opportunity to interview the owner of Perfect Vinyl Forever, Steve Evans. And note, even if you aren't looking for a cleaning service right now, vinyl enthusiasts can learn a lot from him.
GOLDMINE: What makes Perfect Vinyl Forever stand out from other record cleaning services?
STEVE EVANS: Perfect Vinyl Forever is the first record cleaning service that designs, engineers and manufactures their own commercial record cleaning equipment. Other record cleaning services utilize equipment designed for sale direct to the end user. By designing our own equipment, we are able to innovate beyond the practical limitations of equipment designed to be used directly by the consumer in a home environment.
Our most recent innovations are captured in the “2.0” version of our processes. After extensive testing, we upgraded our ultrasonic equipment from 80 kHz to 135 kHz in our cleaning tank and 220 kHz in our rinse tank. The higher frequencies create much finer and gentler cavitation cleaning action that reveal more details in the mid to high frequencies and the results are remarkable. We designed our ultrasonic equipment for high density, low intensity cavitation. Our ultrasonic cleaning and rinsing tanks have four times the number of transducers in our tanks than consumer based ultrasonic cleaners. This ensures even and gentle cavitation cleaning energy on all surfaces of the records. These innovations in record cleaning simply would not be possible by using consumer record cleaning equipment.
For a record cleaning service to become a viable business, quality of service, consistency in results and throughput must be achieved in balance. Our equipment is designed to support cleaning records using our “Perfect Process” at a commercial scale. We can achieve a records per hour metric of throughput that becomes the basis of our value proposition to our clients.
All contributing factors are closely monitored for compliance. We have an on-premises water purification system that generates the laboratory grade purified water we use in every step of our cleaning process. We mix our own cleaning solutions using lab grade base materials, ensuring consistent results. We calibrate and tune our ultrasonic generators daily to eliminate the risk of cavitation induced pitting. All temperatures are continuously monitored using automatic temperature controllers, minimizing the risk of warping. We use industrial programmable logic controllers (PLC) to automate the cleaning process which ensures consistent outcomes and minimizes the risk of operator error. We use four stages of filtering that are in continuous use during cleaning and rinsing stages. This ensures when contaminants are removed from the surface of the record, they will not be redeposited back on to the record.
Lastly, we carry a one-million-dollar product liability insurance policy. When we receive and process very expensive collections, our clients are assured their investments are safe.
GM: And how does the average record collector use the service?
SE: Perfect Vinyl Forever’s value proposition to our clients is based on four value streams: quality of results not attainable with home equipment, convenience, safety and time savings. Our clients have their choice of three service models: direct to the customer, PVF by Mail and our Concierge services. If our clients are located in the Milwaukee or Chicago areas, they can bring their records to us or one of our resellers.
Most of our clients utilize our “PVF by Mail” service. We have specially built mailers that hold up to 16 or 32 records each. When an order is placed, we ship a PVF by Mail mailer kit which includes inner sleeves for transport, record protectors, a pre-paid return mailing label and packing tape strips. Our clients insert their records in the inner sleeves provided and stack them into the mailer, separating each record with a protector. They seal the package with the provided packing tape and place the pre-paid mailing label on the package. Hand the package to your postal worker and we take care of the rest. Our PVF by Mail orders are cleaned and shipped out within 5 business days.
Lastly, we offer our custom Concierge services. These are bespoke services for our clients that wish to have their entire collections professionally cleaned. We offer everything from pick-up, delivery, boxing assistance (pick from shelves, place in transport box then place back on the shelves when delivered), special shipping and handling options. This is a quoted service that is often more convenient and can reduce the expense of having a large quantity of records serviced.
GM: How often do you recommend the service?
SE: I’d like to recommend having your records cleaned annually, however, the reality is, if you follow proper handling practices, you only need your records professionally cleaned once. Our PVF services are a one-time investment with benefits that will last forever unless a handling mishap occurs.
GM: Explain the two processes - UltraDeep and Archival Cleaning?
SE: The UltraDeep process is designed for new records or records with minimal surface noise. It is a five-step process designed to safely improve the sonic characteristics of all vinyl records. We protect the records by loading eight at a time into our carrier. The records are cleaned with 135 kHz ultrasonic cavitation in a cleaning solution. They then are rinsed with 220 kHz ultrasonic cavitation in lab grade ultra-pure water. After rinsing, the rack of records is placed in our HEPA filtered dryer. When dried, they are placed in a new top-quality inner sleeve with a date of service sticker. The cost for this service is $5 per record.
Our Archival process is designed for records with additional surface noise due to accumulated contaminants in the groove. It follows the UltraDeep process but adds a pre-cleaning step. We submerge the entire rack of records into a temperature controlled tank with our enzyme cleaning solution. The records are rinsed then follow the UltraDeep process. The cost for our Archival service is $8 per record.
Enzymes are very powerful cleaning agents, perfectly suited for records because they only affect organic materials. This is very safe for our inorganic polyvinylchloride records. However, for enzymes to be effective cleaners, they need time, heat and moisture to work. Therefore, an extended soak in a recirculating bath is the ideal environment for enzymes to be their most effective. Enzymes only breakdown one type of substrate so the correct blend of enzymes is required to ensure any likely contaminants, and their binders, are dissolved. Our enzymatic formula addresses common contaminants oils, proteins, paper fibers and dust. Pure enzymes have a limited shelf life and should be stored in a refrigerated environment for maximum effectiveness.
GM: Do any record stores take part of this for their used vinyl?
SE: Some, but not many. On occasion, dealers will send us key pieces to ensure they play as well as that particular copy of the record possibly can. We usually can elevate the play grade by one to two levels which on certain albums can have a big impact on their retail selling price. So, selectively cleaning rare or audiophile records can make financial sense at for record dealers.
The challenge for record stores is there are three different personas of customers: “The Hunter”, “The Gatherer” and “The Listener”. The Hunter will spend quite a bit of time at stores and record swap meets digging through crates just to find one or two key pieces for their collection. For them, the primary emotional payoff for buying a record is at the point of discovery.
The Gatherer is the type of record collector that has more music than they can possibly listen to during the remainder of their lifetime. They are likely to be completists and have multiple variations of each title. For them, the primary emotional payoff is to see their expansive collection and know it has been carefully curated.
While PVF’s services bring value to all three record collector personas, we bring the greatest impact to The Listener. The Listener is emotionally touched when they dedicate time for focused listening of their music collections. It is the enhanced listening experience, getting closer to the music they love, that drives The Listener to invest in the professional cleaning of their records. Yes, record stores do cater to The Listener but we tend to have a more direct connection to them through Hi-Fi shops specializing in two channel analog systems.
GM: What are some foreign substances on the surface of all records that can negatively impact the sound? What are substances most listeners are not aware of?
SE: This can be a long and varied list and as such, creates quite a challenge when cleaning records. It is nearly impossible to positively identify the substances you are trying to safely remove from the surface of a record.
There are contaminants that occur due to mishandling of the records. Oils from fingerprints are very common. Saliva deposits happen from people blowing dust off records. Household dust can build up on records if they are left on the turntable or outside of their sleeves and jackets for extended periods of time. Smoke and spilled beverages cause problems as well.
There are issues that happen due to improper storage. We have many clients that want to restore their records that were in a warm and damp environment which fosters mold growth. Our Archival process is excellent at removing mold and our cleaning agents provide lasting antimicrobial protection against future growth. Warping is also an issue, therefore, we offer a flattening service as well.
The most prevalent source of noise is from improper or incomplete cleaning practices. We at PVF are adamant that unless you use a vacuum or ultrasonic cavitation record cleaning machine, collectors should never wet clean their records using just a cleaning solution and brush. Using a solution and a brush results in contaminants being wetted then impacted into the groove by the brush. There, they dry, harden and become very challenging to remove. Ironically, the well-intended record collector is trying to improve their collection. The reality is, they are actually causing incremental damage by impacting and building up contaminants, creating surface noise and obscuring music. A dry anti-static brush is the safest way to remove dust from a record and should be used before every play.
GM: Can all pops and clicks be eliminated? Guaranteed?
SE: Absolutely not! In our experience, a significant amount surface noise is generated from imperfections in the surface of the groove. This can be from pressing flaws or surface damage typically caused by improper handling or worn or damaged styli. This cannot be reversed and is the tradeoff vinyl lovers had to accept since 1948.
However, if the pop or click is due to an organic contaminant, or is an inorganic contaminant bound to the record, there is a good chance it can be reduced or eliminated with the proper cleaning regimen.
Long term PVF clients have repeatedly reported, records they thought were unsalvageable were given new life by our cleaning processes. These records were not completely free of noise post cleaning; but now were enjoyable once again. Our clients report their music has been revealed and is now elevated above any lingering noise generated by surface imperfections.
PVF strives to build long term relationships with our clients. For a service company to earn the right to do repeat business with their clients, we must start with setting realistic expectations. Therefore, we are very candid about the outcomes our professional record cleaning service can deliver.
We set three key expectations with our clients:
- All records will sound better. You will hear new details in the music you haven’t heard from that copy of the record. There will be greater dynamics, more impactful transients, more natural resonances and overall a greater realism to the music. It will be incrementally closer to the master tape experience.
- Once PVF has cleaned your record with the appropriate process, it is the best that copy of the record can possibly sound. No additional cleaning or topical treatments will improve the sound quality of the record. Any subsequent cleanings with anything other than a dry, anti-static carbon fiber brush will start to build up contaminants and begin to obscure your newly discovered sonic revelations.
- You only need to have your record professionally cleaned once. The benefits are lasting if you follow our handling recommendations:
- Never blow dust off your records. You will deposit viscous saliva vapor on your record.
- Never touch the grooved surface of the record with bare fingertips. You’ll leave oils on the surface of the record that will obscure sound and bind dust to the record.
- Always promptly return your record to the inner sleeve we’ve provided.
GM: How does a cleaning lower the “general noise floor”?
SE: I contend we as vinyl lovers and audiophiles have this backwards. I don’t describe the benefits of professional cleaning as lowering the noise floor, unless it was noticeably raised with noise caused by inorganic contaminants. I believe the opposite occurs – we elevate the music above the noise floor. The perceived net effect may be the same but I believe the differentiation is important to understand.
Polyvinylchloride (PVC), the base polymer of our records, is hard and brittle. This is good for water pipes but not great for molding an intricate groove where musical realism is expressed by details in the groove microns in size. Therefore, plasticizers are added to make the vinyl biscuit pliable enough to work well in a record press. However, the bonds of the plasticizers are not as strong as the bonds of the base PVC polymer. Like all other compound materials, when subjected to high pressure and temperatures, the additives tend to separate. In the case of vinyl records, this leaves a manufacturing residue that obscures the micron sized details that contain more musical information.
Historically, this was called a “mold release”. This is not accurate. A mold release would be sprayed on the surfaces of a mold, in the case of records, the stampers. This does not happen during the production of the album. This differentiation is important because if you can’t identify the reason you are improving the sound of the record, you can’t begin to incrementally improve your process and subsequent outcomes.
The only safe way to remove this oily and waxy manufacturing residue is through cleaning by ultrasonic cavitation with a cleaning solution. When you do, you reveal more nuances in the music. It is similar to making a substantial upgrade to your cartridge, phono stage or going from standard Redbook digital to hi-resolution digital files. There is greater dynamic range. The stylus can track the groove more accurately. This is higher resolution vinyl and it applies to every vinyl record pressed since 1948.
GM: Should a record buyer clean all new records before playing for the first time?
SE: Yes, this is ideal but not absolutely necessary. I encourage our clients to listen to their new records a few times to get a sense of the sonic characteristics before cleaning. Then, when PVF perfects the record, our clients can really notice the improvements. Simply use a carbon fiber bristle anti-static brush to remove the surface dust before each play.
GM: How many plays can a record get for the average listener? And will this cleaning improve that number?
SE: I don’t think I can credibly quantify the lifecycle of a record; so many factors apply. Having a high-quality cartridge and a fresh stylus has a major impact on record longevity. Making sure your turntable is properly set up with the correct vertical tracking force, anti-skate, azimuth and vertical tracking angle all help to minimize record wear.
Proper handling protocol is very important. Preventing contaminants from being embedded into the groove is key. And yes, having a complete, proper cleaning process or having your records professionally cleaned will help prolong the enjoyment of your music noticeably, possibly indefinitely.
GM: What’s next for interested record collectors or dealers? How do they get the ball rolling with your service? Are there any limits to the service, etc?
We welcome their inquiries through our website at www.perfectvinylforever.com. We can discuss the best course of action based on their goals. We can consult on ways we to minimize the expense of getting their records cleaned, be it their initial order or entire collection. For instance, recently, two friends who reside in the same city, decided to have their entire collections cleaned. By using our complimentary Concierge service, they saved over $1,500 in shipping costs.
They can also search for “perfect vinyl forever” on Amazon and purchase our PVF by Mail packages through the site.
As far as limitations, if it is a 7”, 10” or 12” vinyl record, we can clean it. We don’t recommend sending in specialty records like acetates, transcription records, shellac 78s, styrene records, etc. Our process is optimized for vinyl records and there isn’t enough demand for us to create specialized processes and equipment for other forms grooved recordings.
If Goldmine readers would like to learn more, Perfect Vinyl Forever will be exhibiting at the AXPONA Hi-Fi show April 17–19 in Chicago. We will have a listening station with two identical turntables into an integrated amplifier with reference headphones. We will play identical records on each turntable; one cleaned with PVF’s UltraDeep 2.0 process and one brand-new record. Visitors will be able to switch between the two copies of the record to compare, in real time, the improvements in sound quality our processes deliver. When record collectors hear for themselves the improvements in sound quality, they realize our value proposition and become long-time, repeat PVF customers.
We’ve worked diligently to make our professional record cleaning services convenient and a great value to our clients. We deliver results that simply cannot be replicated in a home environment. When our clients hear the difference our cleaning processes deliver and factor in the convenience of our service, well, I’ll express it this way - there are a lot of vacuum, ultrasonic and Keith Monk style record cleaning machines gathering dust these days.