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Record Cleaning: The Nuclear Options

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Constantine recently reminded me that I had my own column, something I hadn’t contributed to in some time. Well, I thought I would share with the readers my concoctions for dirty records. When I say dirty, I really mean it. Mold (the biological organism), food, fingerprints, etc., will not be removed by some vinyl washes. The average record cleaning formula is mostly filtered water, and for good reason. If you just have a little dust to remove, then purified water is the best bet. You can always add some Everclear if the record has some tenacious mold-release-compound; supposedly, the vinyl biscuits have a compound to help the record release from the stampers. Everclear is safer than denatured alcohol, which might contain small amounts of gasoline and other exotic crap that might, or might not, do permanent damage.

However, beyond the “normal” audiophile pressing, things get a lot dirtier. Even dangerous. I came into this hobby as a musician and record collector, not a lover of equipment. I love equipment that makes the music sound better, but not equipment in general. I do love vinyl, it’s more organic. I love vinyl the way some love an engraved base 300B, or 300A, if you are really lucky. The jacket has a texture. The vinyl has weight and hardness, maybe even exotic colors, or maybe clear. The inner sleeve might have large graphics, or lyrics, or not. A record is a living, breathing thing, something easy to damage, even kill, but also something that might last much longer than a CD, or the people who produced the record. A rare old record has a magic that digital will never have. Perfection isn’t the reason your eyes bulge when you see a Martzy or Lexington Ave deep groove Blue Note. Even if they were perfect in the Goldmine grading sense, there’s something more to it than that. It’s a sense of place and history that you don’t get with a reissue. Also, before you say “yeah, but the reissue sounds way better,” you better slam on the brakes.

While the best reissue engineers and labels go to great lengths to produce an excellent product, they are ultimately limited by the availability of a good-sounding master tape. In too many cases, tapes are lost, damaged or worn out. It happens more than you want to know. You might ask why some labels aren’t reissued very much. Sometimes it’s because the original tapes were pilfered, thrown away, burned up in a fire, etc. Companies go out of business. Even companies that have plenty of money have committed egregiously sinful acts against their tapes and lacquers. If you want to get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, Google “RCA Camden Vault Trashing.” I felt ill the first time I read the story, even if it occurred before I was born. The very idea of destroying a master is ludicrous. Of course, the RCA story mostly involved pre-tape era masters, but there are plenty of stories about tapes. Some tapes even self-destruct. Google “sticky shed syndrome.” There’s a good chance that the original master for your favorite ‘70s artist is virtually beyond repair. Even if the original tape is in perfect condition, and sitting five feet from someone in a vault, there is no guarantee it will wind up in the hands of the mastering engineer. So, there is a method to the madness of some collectors, a pragmatism rooted in entropy.

When I said that some old records were dangerous, I meant it. It’s not hyperbole. Water and paper, plus time, equals mold. The kind of mold that makes my skin break out, and airways to contract. Of course, if it’s a good record, I’m still going to risk the health consequences. The mold can be denatured with good ole’ bleach. The jacket is already toast once it’s been wet enough to grow mold. So don’t worry about devaluing the record even more. As an aside, bleach isn’t very useful in killing mold on drywall, wood, etc.. It’s good enough for a record jacket though. Just put enough bleach on the moldy area to saturate it, and then let it soak in and dry. It works for me. Some fancy mold remediator would have a more expensive solution. If you have a functioning central air conditioning system, or you live in a dry climate, don’t worry about the mold spores polluting your house. They are already there. It takes certain growing conditions for them to lay down roots and cause mayhem. The spores, while causing allergic reactions, are commonly found all around us, and not to be treated like plutonium or the bubonic plague. Don’t use bleach on the vinyl, just the paper! Bleach is probably the most caustic agent in your house.

So, this is a worst case scenario: a record that might have mold on its surface. I’ve had more than one, and the normal cleaning solutions were mostly ineffective. My assumption was that they had permanently bonded to the vinyl. Not so fast! If the record is otherwise an unusable turd, then why not experiment! Excelsior!!! I went through several concoctions; some using powerful wetting agents/surfactants (treat them with caution); others using various amounts of various alcohols (ethanol, isopropanol, denatured and natural); various home cleaning agents (mostly doing more harm than good). Still, you can’t make an unlistenable record that much more unlistenable. I have found two solutions for extremely dirty records, up to ones with mold (the biological mold, not the chemical compound).

Concoction number one: Folex and Everclear. I was first exposed to Folex when I asked for a suggestion on carpet cleaning fluid at Lowe’s; I haven’t seen it anywhere else. Because I have cats, there was a constant need for carpet cleaning. Most cleaning products have too many noxious chemicals, and leave behind residues that make the carpet feel dirtier, and perhaps sticky. Folex, I was told, was different, and better. It comes in a nondescript bottle, looking more like the cleaning fluid your janitor would use. That’s not a bad thing—consumer products are often fancy packages with crap inside. The price was good and I took it home. The liquid inside had very little smell (hurrah!), and a slight pink hue. Application was straight forward and it did a better job than anything else I tried. Wanting to know what magic lurked in the fluid, I called up Folex, apparently a small company, and wound up talking to the president or owner. There was nothing “space-age” in the liquid: just a proprietary blending of commonly available surfactants and filtered water. Wow. It’s soapy water, but without sudsing agents and perfumes. It’s just what you need to clean and nothing more. Before you try to make your own “cheap” version, be forewarned. The minimum purchase on some of the chemicals they might be using is 50 gallon drums.

I first tried the Folex, undiluted, on a ‘70s rock pressing, and the results were good, but not without issues. It left behind an unseen, but audible, residue. I could get the residue off with my normal cleaning fluids, or it sounded that way. As far as I know, plain distilled water should be a good rinse for something like Folex, my assumption being that the chemicals are all water loving). I still didn’t get miracle results on the worst sounding records. I tried watering it down, but got less cleaning. The next step was to mix fluids, and I found some magic with a 50/50 mix of Everclear and Folex. While it still needed to be rinsed with my normal cleaners, there wasn’t as much soap residue, and the cleaning action of the fluid removed tough oils and organics that my normal fluids wouldn’t touch. (Read with care, please. -Pub.) Please keep in mind that I am not recommending this as your regular cleaning fluid. It’s much too powerful for a pressing that just has some dust and some residues from the pressing plant. While I didn’t see or hear vinyl damage, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one of the chemicals, or the Everclear, might react negatively with some vinyl formulations. I haven’t done triple blind placebo test with a scanning electron microscope of multiple identical factory fresh pressings. My experience has been mostly positive. However, there was still a few records that not even Folex and Everclear could clean.

Concoction number two is the original cleaner and antiseptic: vinegar. Yes, vinegar. “Distilled white vinegar,” to be exact. You wouldn’t believe how good it is for cleaning a glass-top range, or getting cat vomit out of carpet, or oil out of fabric. It’s like magic. I was told about the powerful cleaning properties of vinegar by someone who ran a carpet store. I was pushed to using vinegar on a pressing that had been attacked by mold. I did a three-step cleaning process using my Folex/Everclear concoction, the two Record Research Labs cleaners, and a VPI 17. I also used the VPI’s cleaning brush to agitate the Folex/Everclear. After five minutes of cleaning a side, I’d say 85% of the gunk was still on the record.

I thought this was a good time to try vinegar. I used undiluted vinegar and a stylus cleaning brush, going with the grooves obviously. It got 100% of the crap off the record. I followed up with a good rinse, of course. Between the first significant cleaning, and the vinegar cleaning, I put the record on the turntable to see if it was playable. Prior to cleaning it would play, but the section that had the mold had a very prominent “scrunch” and visibly deflected the stylus of my Shure V15. Not good. After the cleaning, the “scrunch” was gone, and it tracked like it was never there. Of course, the record was a rare jazz record, not a 99 cent record that could, and should, be immediately tossed in the trash. Even after the cleaning, there were tics and pops and background noise from the dicey vinyl formula. But, using the correct cartridge, playback EQ and the mono switch, the record was very pleasurable. Otherwise, it would have been thrown away had the mold issue not been resolved. I tried cleaning a few “normal” pressings from the ‘60s and ‘70s and couldn’t tell if the vinegar was hurting or helping. I’d reserve its use for extreme cases. Vinegar is acidic and very probably will leach plasticizers out of the vinyl with prolonged exposure. On the other hand, a record doesn’t sound very good when it’s been thrown in the trash. This is definitely something to try for otherwise awful disks.

A word about rinsing: I found that a very affordable rinse, one readily available to you, is “Sterile Water for Irrigation USP.” I believe it is commonly used by people who are cleaning diabetic wounds/sores. Info from the internet:

Sterile Water for Irrigation USP is a sterile, hypotonic, nonpyrogenic irrigating fluid or pharmaceutic aid (solvent) entirely composed of Sterile Water for Injection USP. It is prepared by distillation and contains no antimicrobial or bacteriostatic agents or added buffers. The pH is 5.7 (5.0–7.0)

The plastic container is a copolymer of ethylene and propylene formulated and developed for parenteral drugs. The copolymer contains no plasticizers and exhibits virtually no leachability. The plastic container is also virtually impermeable to vapor transmission and therefore, requires no overwrap to maintain the proper drug concentration. The safety of the plastic container has been confirmed by biological evaluation procedures. The material passes Class Vl testing as specified in the U.S. Pharmacopeia for Biological Tests—Plastic Containers. These tests have shown that the container is nontoxic and biologically inert.

I must warn you that it has a very limited shelf life. You can preserve it with some alcohol, but I don’t know if that would reduce its effectiveness or improve it. Because the water is slightly acidic and hypotonic, it very quickly dissolves precipitates that distilled water would leave behind. It’s very attractive to certain kinds of dirt, making it a good rinse. Because there is nothing in it, it has a very high surface tension, so it beads. It doesn’t like to go down in the groove without some encouragement. I found that the Record Doctor’s brush rinsed several times before use and the Last applicators would get the water down into the groove, and rinse away residues.

Anyway, I hope this might help a few of you hardcore types who, like me, enjoy old vinyl. Happy New Year and Happy listening!

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One Response to Record Cleaning: The Nuclear Options

  1. Travis Smith says:

    Will all the remedies mentioned apply to old (some very) 78’s? Would a soft toothbrush suffice? Have several hundreds that smell of mildew. No preventative care ever used. Is the Wood Glue mentioned regular adhesive glue?, hard to believe. How do you use it? Thanks for an answer.

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