Grunge in the grooves

Take a look at your phone. The screen is perfectly clean at this moment, right? No smudges?

Yeah, right. I spend half the day putting smudges on my phone and the rest getting them off. I know I'm not the only one.

Something that interacts so closely with the human body, like a phone, will eventually show signs of that proximity to a living being. In no time, you'll see moisture, oil, dirt and, as I like to say, good ol’ schmutz accumulate on the device. Hopefully you're not eating while you read this.

As I've learned from observations of my smudgy cellphone glass, my fingers and hands can transport plenty of schmutz.

And as you can see from quick observation of a vinyl record, the disc is etched with countless minuscule grooves, inside of which the music is represented by countless bumps and troughs.

Think about how hard it is to activate the fingerprint recognition on your phone when your finger is dirty. To say that clean hands touching a record — or hands not actually touching the grooves at all — is ideal is an understatement.

But it's not just finger schmutz that fills in those grooves and takes away from the music experience. In the short time a record is spinning on the actual player, it can collect dust from the open air.

The dust sleeve was created to keep records clean, and correct use of it has the sleeve opening facing into the record jacket — not out. But it’s up to the user to steadfastly adhere to this rule. I know I’ve looked at records at friends’ houses and spied the actual vinyl peeking out, indicating that the dust sleeve isn’t correctly oriented.

And that pile of records my parents gave me? Half of them didn’t even have a dust sleeve. The point is, opportunities for dust to find its way into your grooves are plentiful. Because of the way that records are “read” by the needle, this should be foremost on every vinyl lover’s mind.

A record needle moves along the inside of a record groove to make music. The needle is attached to a simple electromagnet, where a common arrangement has the magnet moving along with the needle to create the varying electrical signal of music.

We all know this, right? Well answer this: If there's one groove, how do we get two channels of stereo music?

The answer is that there are actually two electromagnets above the needle. The record's groove is etched with a deep V trough, and left channel music is represented in grooves on the left side of that V, and the right channel on the right side. The needle moves up and down at angles so that both channels are added to that electrical signal.

If you've got dirt, oil or general, all-purpose schmutz down there at the bottom of the groove, you can imagine that things can get messy quickly. More and more subtle music information is lost completely the more dirt is in there.

As PS Audio’s Paul McGowan would say, what’s lost at the source can never be recovered. The best signal chain in the world is reduced to average when it follows a dirty record.

At The Music Room, we’ve seen quite a number of different record cleaning machines and approaches. Really — we may have seen it all. Ultrasonic cleaners with spindles, tubs and generators; the Loricraft approach that sends a fine thread through every groove, which it then washes; vertical cleaners, horizontal cleaners and full DIY contraptions.

The most common design we see is pretty straightforward spinning platter, cleaning liquid and a vacuum mechanism — fairly simple to understand and use. This adorable Okki Nokki Record Cleaning Machine is a perfect example of just what you need, and nothing you don’t. For most people, the cleaning liquid application, brushing and vacuuming does the job well enough to really reap the rewards of the effort. Of course, for those of you who like to take things further, as mentioned there are much more fancy cleaning devices out there for you.

Whatever the design, we’ve noticed that record cleaners are always a hot item, and we can’t seem to keep them on our shelves. The need for cleaning is real, and a gently used record cleaner works just as well as a brand new one. Everyone can appreciate a deal on a good tool.

In fact, right at this moment we are fresh out of record cleaners, although the cute Okki Nokki above will make its way through our processing routine shortly, and it will be available early next week.

The best vinyl playback in any hifi system begins with a clean record. Do your music and your ears a solid and keep an eye on our New Arrivals Page if you’re a vinyl lover without a cleaning device.