Record Cleaning, Homemade Style

Jeff Archer Black

The original essay I wrote is below. But here is the straight dope on what you need and where to get it:

1. Orbitrac 2 Kit. Sadly, as of this writing, they are quite hard to find. Why? Don't know. If you find a place to buy the kit, get 2 of them. If you must buy used, do. In the meantime, go to Acoustic Sounds and buy a few bottles of the Orbitrac fluid. You'll be reusing the bottles.

2. White, or a light colored velvet. Get a square yard. Most cities have a fabric store. Don't get cheap stuff.

3. Isopropyl Alcohol. Be sure to get the 91% stuff. Never less. If you can get hospital grade, do.

4. Triton X-114. Buy it at Post Apple Scientific. Tell Gordon I sent ya.

5. A glass eye-dropper and a box of toothpicks. Get those at your drug store when you get the alcohol.

6. Gallon of Distilled Water. Most grocery stores carry this.

The Formula I use:

Fill the 1 ounce bottle half way with Distilled Water. With the glass eye-dropper, put in 20 to 40 drops of Alcohol.
With a toothpick, put in 3 or 4 drops of Triton X-114. Fill the rest of the bottle with Distilled Water, leaving a bit of space on top. Put the spray cap on and shake it up real good.

And that's that. All the grisly details follow:

Since I got back into collecting vinyl records a few years back, I've been spinning my tires trying to find a good record cleaning system for the least amount of money. At first I went to the old standby, the wooden handled Discwasher brush and D-4 fluid. It worked for the time being. But, overall, it just didn't get the job done well enough. When I moved up to a better turntable, I kept drooling over the Nitty Gritty machines. But, alas, I couldn't afford paying over $300 on a machine when my turntable cost me that much. Then I went to an even more costly turntable. Yeah, went nuts and paid $1600 for my VPI Scout. Did I put any money aside for a Nitty Gritty or VPI vacuum cleaning machine? Of course not. So, I set out to find what worked best for the least.

I kept looking at all the expensive record cleaning solutions. Record Research, Disc Doctor's Miracle Cleaner and so on and so forth. Then, what to put the solution on? There's all kinds of brushes out there. Just my luck, as I started doing my research, I discovered that Allsop had begun making their Orbitrac system again. They had cut production back in the mid/late 90's when it looked like vinyl was dead in the water. That didn't end up the case; vinyl came back and so did the Orbitrac. I liked the way this device was designed. I always had a problem with the Discwasher brush because it was difficult to get the fluid on the record evenly and thoroughly. So, I bought an Orbitrac II kit for around $35. It performed as I expected it too. Very well. Just a couple squirts of the supplied fluid did indeed knock out the worst of the gunk that was making a home on my vinyl. This was all good and well, until, I realized that I was going to be cleaning a buttload of records and that the two white brush inserts that came with the kit would turn black real quick. I also learned that washing them with soap and water dimished the effectiveness of the brushes. Then, the fluid ran out. So, I went back to Acoustic Sounds and bought another set of pads for about nine bucks and two more bottles of fluid for about four each. This was going to get expensive afterall, I thought. So, how do I sidestep that?

I began devising the perfect, cheap plan.

For starters, it helped to have a proper cleaning surface. I had an old turntable in the closet that I took all the parts off of except for the platter. I screwed the platter down to the base of the table so it didn't move. On the platter I put a rubber gasket of sorts, cut out to the dimension of the platter. I used the weaved looking rubber that one uses for the base of cupboards. This helped keep what was on top of it from spinning on the platter. On top of that, I found a thin piece of foam packing. Actually, it was what a stereo component was wrapped in in the box to protect it from dirt and static electricity. And, on top of that, the four skid-proof pads that came with the Orbitrac kit. All of these layers I taped together with a few looped pieces of Scotch tape to keep them from sliding around. I did a lot of experimenting with these for a few reasons. The hole in the center of the Oribitrac handle was only so deep and I found initially that without the extra height of the objects I put under the Orbitrac pads, the brush did not seat properly and this put the brush handle out of alignment with the surface of the record. Not having this leveled properly led to the Orbitrac plastic brush handle splitting at it's side seams. I also found that the material that was once wrapped about a stereo component actually helped reduce the static electricity that builds up on some records. That is my cleaning base.

Then came the brush pads. I went out to one of the local fabric shops and bought a 12 foot by 12 foot piece of white velvet. (So far it's lasted me a year and a half) I disassembled one of the brush pads I got from Orbitrac and laid it on a piece of blue cardstock. I traced it. Then I cut it out. I reuse the same piece of cardstock over and over. All I do is put the pattern on the face of the velvet, outline it with a black Sharpie marker and then cut that out. I then very carefully reassemble the brush using scotch tape to hold the velvet tightly in place. I make four at a time. (Getting the pad properly placed and taped takes some practice.)

So far I have the place I clean the records and the mechanism to clean them with. (As a side note: I have since bought a second Orbitrac kit. I utilize both brush handles and I'll explain how later)

The cleaning fluid has been my biggest nemesis in all of this. Do I now buy the expensive premade stuff? Devise my own? I decided that I'm going to make my own and have gone through about ten different combinations of ingredients over the past year. Initially, I started with Photo-flow from Kodak, distilled water and alcohol with a touch of different soaps such as Woolite. With all the things mentioned, one, or all of them was leaving behind a film on my records. I'd read later that Photo-flow has ingredients that are suspect. Any of the soaps I tried had the same result.

I recently decided on using good old Occam's Razor. (The most simple solution is usually the best)

I got lucky and found a place that sells a highly recommended solubilizing agent called Triton X-114. As of this writing, it can be purchased here at Post Apple Scientific. I bought the 500mL bottle which is enough to last me for the rest of my life. This stuff acts as a wetting solution and actually allows the fluid to spread evenly on the record surface and into the grooves as opposed to it beading and smearing. How this works on a technical/chemical level beats the hell out of me, but it works. I also got a couple bottles of isoprophyl alcohol being sure to get the one that is 91%. Then I went to my grocery store and got a gallon of distilled water.

Granted, there are quadruple distilled waters out there and hospital grade alcohols, but, I'm not that much of an audioweenie to go that far out of my way. But if you want to search that stuff out, by all means, do. The more pure, the better.

That's it. That's all I'm using now. And I gotta say, it's the best thing I've put together yet.

But what is the recipie? Yes, the $31,000 question. This is how I do it:

For starters, I only make one 1oz. bottle of the solution at a time. I reuse the same bottle that came with the Orbitrac kit. I do this for a reason. When I've cleaned enough records for that bottle to be empty, it's time to change the cleaning brush pads too.

I mix it like this: With a clean 1oz. bottle, I fill it half full of distilled water. Then I add (with a clean glass eyedropper) 3 or 4 drops of Triton X-114. Then, with a seperate eye dropper, 20 to 40 drops of alcohol. (You can experiment with what works better for you.) I then fill the rest with distilled water. Close and shake it up real good.

That's it. I chose to use the absolute minimal ingredients I could and it works like a charm. The trick though (there's a trick to everything my friends) is applying it. This is where having two Orbitrac handles comes in handy. After cleaning off the brush pads with the little hard bristle brush that comes with the Orbitrac kit, I spray three to four squirts of fluid evenly onto the first brush, holding the spray bottle 4 inches away, put it on the spindle and spin it four to six times clockwise with a medium amount of pressure. Lift, remove, then put the second brush immediately on the spindle and spin it in the same direction about ten times. The second brush works in two ways. Number one, while the record surface is still slightly wet, it helps in picking up any of the loose debris that the first brush didn't get and also helps to dry the record. Now, if you do not have two Orbitrac handles, you can use one. After putting the first wet brush on, quickly remove the brush pad and pop the dry one into place.

One very important step in all of this is to use a carbon fiber brush directly before and after this process. In cleaning records with liquid, I always run the carbon fiber brush on the record very thoroughly first to remove all possible surface dust and dirt. The more you remove this way first, the less you shove into the grooves with liquid later. In other words, over do it with the carbon fiber brush before the wet pads. I do the first carbon fiber brushing manually on the cleaning table in a sweeping fashion. After the wet cleaning, I put the record on the playing table and run the carbon fiber brush on the spinning record a few more times.

If, after cleaning the record the first time you still hear significant surface noise, simply repeat the process. There are some records in my collection that I've cleaned every time I've played them. After three or four cleanings/playings, they've shaped up quite nicely. Starsailor by Tim Buckley is a fine example of that. The record grading when I first got it would've been EX-, but after the extra cleanings I'd call it NM-.

One other trick with the cleaning pads is this. Some records previous owners got their fingerprints on the lead-in grooves and the standard cleaning I've described just doesn't get their finger grease off. This can make for a noisy intro. What I do in this case is this; spray the entire pad once or twice, then put an extra two squirts of cleaning fluid on the outer edge of the pad which contacts the lead-in grooves of the record. I then put the 'Trac on the spindle, holding it above the spindle with one hand and with the other hand, hold the end of the pad and lightly scrub the record in a back and forth motion, swiping about two to four inches of surface at a time, all the way around the record one whole time. Then, one more revolution, then, the drying brush. Unless the finger grease is of the supernasty white kind, the extra scrubbing usually does the trick.

Some limitations with this process are, the fluid does not have any anti-static properties. Nor does it have anything in it to kill and remove heavy mold, but, if you're buying used records that are moldy, they're probably all scratchy too and not even a $500 VPI vacuum cleaning machine will help those things. For static, I could go out and spend $60 on an Antistat gun, but me? Nah, I just tap the edge of the record on the ground post on the back of my turntable a couple times. Works most every time.

After all the cleaning is done, I always put the record in a brand new sleeve. I only use the paper/poly ones like these at NeedleDoctor. If the original sleeve has artwork or anything worth saving, I keep it and put it in the cover along with the fresh sleeve and record. Otherwise, off to the trash with 'em.

Being the perfectionist I almost am, after I've listened to an album side, I always run the carbon fiber brush over the record a few revolutions before flipping the record or putting it in the sleeve. Overkill? Nah. I just like my vinyl as dust free as possible.

One last note. There is a perennial debate over using alcohol on vinyl. Some say it removes the plasticizers which ruin records, others say the opposite. I look at it this way: As diluted the alcohol is in the solution I make, which is probably real close to the amount used in all the cleaners I used 25 years ago on the records I still own and play today, I can hear no harm done. I have to wonder if the people who scream the loudest about using alcohol are the same ones who concoct and sell cleaning solutions that costs the consumer $50 an ounce.