As vinyl enthusiasts can attest, enjoying music to its fullest depends on three factors: the equipment you choose, how well you care for it, and how you treat your records.
After all, it’s hard to enjoy high fidelity sound if you don’t invest in a quality setup. The turntable, phono preamp, and speakers you choose matter. You also need to care for that equipment so it continues to perform at the highest level for years to come.
But just as you need to care for your equipment, you also need to clean your records and care for them. If they’re dirty or scratched, it hardly matters how great your turntable is. Your music just won’t sound very good.
To avoid damaging your records, you’ve got to pamper them. Treat your vinyl right, and you’ll enjoy crystal clear sound every time.
Grooves are the key to great sound
Record grooves are where your favorite music lives. As your stylus cruises the grooves, it sends those analog signals through the cartridge to your preamp and, finally, your speakers.
Grooves are to records what words are to a novel. Just as you can’t tell a great story without compelling language, you can’t enjoy great sound without clean, undamaged grooves. Here’s what that means for your vinyl record collection:
Keep your records clean
You don’t want to let dirt, debris, or gunk build up inside the grooves. If you do, your records won’t sound the same. Instead of top-notch fidelity, you’ll hear ticks and pops. Not good.
Avoid scratching your records
Dirty records are often redeemable, but scratches might be permanent. Improper storage and handling can scratch up your records.
The good news? Caring for your records isn’t all that hard. By cultivating a few good habits, you’ll never have to worry about dirty or damaged records getting between you and your tunes.
How to store your records
Cool, dry, and vertical – that’s how to store your records.
Excess moisture and heat can harm vinyl, so it’s a good idea to store your records in a dry, temperature-controlled environment. Most of the time, this means keeping them within your primary living space.
Attics are a no-go because the summer heat can warp your vinyl. Basements are iffy, too. When the relative humidity reaches 60% or higher, the risk of mold increases. Mold won’t grow on vinyl itself, but it can grow on a paper record sleeve and then gunk up your grooves. At best, prolonged exposure to moisture, humidity, and mold will make your records dirty and ruin those great record covers. At worst, it can warp them.
Why store records vertically? Stacking records can warp or bend them, nevermind increase the risk of scratching. Record shops don’t display vinyl vertically just for customer convenience. They do it to protect their product.
But following the cool-dry-vertical protocol alone won’t keep your records from getting dirty. To protect records from dust and contaminants, you should store them inside professional-grade, anti-static sleeves.
Nitty Gritty makes sleeves that fit the bill. They’re 20# cotton on the outside with polypropylene lining on the inside. Use these, and you’ll also avoid scratching your records inside a rough paper sleeve.
How to handle your records
Don’t touch the grooves!
When possible, only touch your records at the edges and on the label. Otherwise, the oils from your hands could get inside the grooves. The more oil that gets in the grooves, the more dust sticks to the playing surface. It’s kind of a springboard toward gunking up your records, so you’re better off not beginning the process in the first place.
Proper handling also matters during the moments just before and during play. Raise and lower the needle on your turntable using the cueing lever – not your fingers. When you’re done listening to a record, be sure you slide it into the sleeve. Dropping it in risks splitting the sleeve or scratching the vinyl.
What should you do if you happen to touch the playing surface? First of all, relax. We’ve all done it. You just need to clean your records, and there are several ways to do that.
How to clean vinyl
Your approach to cleaning records might change depending on a record’s age and status. For example, the way you clean a record you just picked up at a used record shop might differ from how you clean a new record.
If you’re buying lots of used records, it’s a good idea to invest in a wet cleaning system:
This machine is a favorite among vinyl enthusiasts. It uses a vinyl-safe brush cleaning fluid to remove all the grime from the grooves. After letting it run for awhile, you can turn on a vacuum to suck all the nasty stuff away from your record. If you can’t settle for anything but the deepest cleaning, the VPI HW-16.5 is the way to go.
A great option if you’re on a budget, the Spin-Clean Record Washer does a great job removing dirt, dust, and grime.
New records are a little trickier. While they might be “clean,” they’re usually covered with compounds left over from the manufacturing process. LAST Power Cleaner is the best way to get these off. Just apply the cleaner to the included applicator and move the applicator in a sweeping motion around the grooves. Many vinyl enthusiasts will first clean a brand new record with LAST Power Cleaner, then run it through a record cleaning machine. The LAST Power Cleaner is also a great way to get the oil from your fingers off should you accidently touch the area where the grooves are.
For spot cleaning on records that are otherwise mostly clean, it’s a good idea to keep an Audio Advice Record Brush on hand. This carbon fiber brush cleans deep inside the grooves to remove gunk before it even becomes visible.
Just don’t try to clean your records with a cotton shirt or towel. It might seem soft enough, but it’s really just moving dirt around and you run the risk of scratching them too.
Keep Your Turntable Tuned Up
A worn out stylus can damage the grooves of your records. It’s a good idea to replace your stylus after 1000-1500 hours of playing time. Also while you might think setting the tracking force really light will prevent wear, it’s actually the opposite. You want the stylus to be firmly seated in the record groove so it does not bounce around creating wear and tear. We suggest you track at the upper range of the recommended stylus tracking force.
Proper alignment is also critical. There is a geometry that keeps the stylus perfectly centered in the record groove for minimal wear. If you should change your entire cartridge make sure you use the setup guide to align it properly.
Vinyl TLC gives you a healthy, long-lasting record collection
Old LPs don’t have to sound like, well… old LPs. If you’ve ever bought a used record that ticked and popped or suffered through crackly tracks on your parents’ old records, you know just how bad dirty or damaged vinyl can sound.
But your vinyl doesn’t have to sound like that.
By protecting and cleaning your records, you can make them last a lifetime – and possibly longer! Proper cleaning can also breathe new life into old vinyl, making a 40+ year-old record that’s never been adequately cleaned sound like new again.
The best part? It’s easy. You just have to get into the groove (pun intended) of proper record storage, handling, and cleaning. If you’re already building a vinyl setup and accumulating a library of records, regular care and cleaning is a natural next step.