Advanced Record Cleaning On The Cheap
My good friend Jeff Whitlock got me thinking about the fabulous Clearaudio Double Matrix record cleaner. I mean, who wouldn't love to own one: press a button and it performs a complete cleaning, applying the fluid, brushing, vacuuming and demagnetizing both sides of an LP in 2.5 minutes, automatically! He also mentioned that you can program it for a double cleaning or for an indefinite period of brushing with fluid, and it's only $6000 — a bargain if you have that kind of spare change.
I'm not lazy. I mean I don't mind getting up and down to change LPs, and I don't mind the cleaning process, EXCEPT, there's a definite limit to how long I am willing to stand there holding a brush against the LP, so I would end up with far shorter cleaning periods than is optimal.
When you apply fluids to an LP, whether enzyme-based or alcohol-based there is a period of time required for the fluid to soak, penetrate, and then lift embedded debris out of the grooves. Gentle brushing helps this process along, moving a small wave of fluid ahead of the brush, replenishing the groove at the end of each revolution. You can leave the fluid sitting there, but it will tend to dry out, whereas brushing continually re-wets the grooves. This process can go on for many revolutions, but as I stated, my patience falls far short of the time I think it takes to clean a record.
There are different schools of thought when it comes to what kind of cleaning device is best. The two main camps are, of course, the traditional ‘apply fluid, brush and vacuum cleaners' like the VPI, Nitty Gritty etc. and the ultrasonic cleaners that make use of a fluid bath that requires periodic replenishing and or replacement. While a bath seems impressive, a brush pushing a wave of fluid can be considered a kind of bath, just a very shallow one. With a standard record cleaner, you use new fluid each time. You're not using a tank that gets progressively dirtier as time goes on and there's no need to empty and refill the tank. To be effective, I think, brush type cleaning needs 20 or more revolutions.
So I got to thinking about how could I rig up something that will brush the records without me having to stand there for two to five minutes? What if the record is really dirty and needs two kinds of washes plus a rinse? In my book, the rinse does not need to be as long as the washing and brushing. The brushing should have already loosened the debris and the vacuum cycle should have removed what was released, so the rinse cycle is the least of the worries. But having to do two different brushings at 6 to 10 minutes total is more than this mortal can handle. So here's what I came up with:
One of these can be put together for under $17 in parts. You will need the following: Helping Hands Magnifier Glass Stand with Alligator Clips, some automobile tire weights, some rubber bands (these serve two purposes, they keep the weights on the base, as the adhesive on the weights doesn't bond all that well with the pitted surface of the Helping Hands base, and they grab onto the surface of your record cleaner, preventing the unit from sliding. I'm using the wrap that goes on tennis racquets, but anything that will give a little grip is a good idea). Finally, you need some of the Last type of record brushes.
O.K. So these aren't cheap, $38 for ten at The Last Factory.
but your cost for one is $3.80. The auto tire weights aren't cheap either, but you'll only be using pennies worth of them. The ones that are left over can be used for all sorts of audio improvements. See my tweak of the Acoustic Revive RR-888 Ultra Low-Frequency Generator.
I removed the magnifying glass and one of the alligator clips. I added the auto tire weights to the base to make it more stable, and to the brush as well. On its own, the brush will not seat well and needs the weights to make positive contact with the surface of the LP. You might want to experiment with how much weight you add to the brush. Orient the brush so that is about 10 degrees off of plumb, perpendicular to the grooves and place the base on your cleaning machine. (If your machine does not have room for the base, there are clamp-on versions of the helping hands, or you might otherwise need to improvise.) You should be able to press gently on the articulated arm to flatten the bush against the LP (after you've added your fluid). Voila! You now have a cleaning machine that will push fluids around the grooves for as long as you choose without having to stand there holding a brush, feeling stupid and building up tension in your back. You can go and check your email or make coffee, and come back, remove the unit and vacuum up the well-saturated debris. Just don't forget you left the LP spinning there. It will dry out after not too long a while. Keep a paper towel handy in case some fluid gets squeegeed off the edge and drips on your machine.
Since I clean very dirty LPs with two different fluids followed by a rinse, I purchased a second unit so that I don't have to clip and unclip the brushes, just lift one out and put the other one in. This setup will clean nearly as well as the Matrix for just the cost of your existing manual machine plus the materials to make your articulated, weighted brush holder. It's not automatic. You still have to run the vacuum and flip the LP, but the increase in cleaning time accompanied by the fact you don't have to stand there any more (or at least as much) is well worth the investment.
The LPs I've cleaned so far are the cleanest I've ever had. I experimented with several of my favorite pressings that had already been cleaned. I listened to one cut and then did a one-step brushing plus rinse cycle on each side. A visual inspection comparing a previously cleaned side with a newly cleaned one showed the new cleaning to be much more thorough. It is sparkling and pristine. The old cleaning appears slightly dull and grainy side by side with the new. I don't think I would have characterized the old cleaning as not fully clean until I had seen the difference. I came back and played the cut again. In every case, the presentation was quieter and more transparent than before.
The downside to all of this is that I may have to re-clean all my favorites. Oy!
But wait! There's more! See below for my instructions on how to supercharge your LP brush project in the second installment, turning it into a true world-class contender for around $60.
In the previous section, I described how to build a brush that would stand on its own so that you don't have to stand there holding it for the number of revolutions required to get the record clean - a process for which I have little patience. My limit is about 6 revolutions before I get antsy and need to leave, but six revolutions does not give the enzymes enough time to do their job. They have to break down what in many cases will be decades-long embedded dirt. The advantage of having a brush in place for longer than any reasonable person should be willing to stand there for is undeniable, but is that freestanding brush, on its own, enough to ensure the kind of deep cleaning needed to extract all the information hidden in the grooves?
Jeff recently reminded me that you have to agitate the brush to get a deep cleaning, but then you are back to standing there holding the damn brush. There had to be a better way. Does manual agitation alone bring you to the promised land? My answer is no it does not. Not after I have heard what I am now hearing. But to backtrack, his reminder was the basis for my latest upgrade to the standing brush system, one that brings your ordinary spinning vacuum cleaner into megabuck performance for around $60 (A little more if you haven't built your stationary brush yet.)
So what form does this fevered inspiration take and what was the reasoning that got me there? I have been thinking a lot about ultrasonic machines, their pros, and cons. One thing is the fact that the cleaning agent is primarily water with perhaps some small amount of enzymes or surfactant added, but on a spinning vacuum type of machine, the fluid can be 100% enzymes or other concentrated cleaning liquid. So there has to be an advantage there. How much fluid does the record need to see to clean very deeply? I think the answer is, not all that much really, just enough to decently flood the surface plus enough time to penetrate the dirt and enough agitation to assist. Ultrasonic cleaning is not the only type of sonic cleaning used in industrial processes. There is also just plain sonic cleaning. So what if you could modify your freestanding brush holder to vibrate while spinning? What would that do, and how would you go about making that happen? It turns out that all the technology you need is readily available and costs little. I simply put together pieces that I knew already existed.
You can order a small transducer Tectonic TEAX19C01-8 19mm Metal Cup Exciter 8 Ohm from Parts Express. Its purpose is to turn any surface into a "speaker".
While these devices and the panels that you apply them to will create truly awful sound (It is a novelty to be able to turn your walls into "speakers"), there are other very useful applications such as this one where they can be quite valuable. You will also need a small amplifier such as the Dayton Audio DTA30HP 30W Class D Mini Amplifier (two channels producing 30 Watts at Parts Express for $38.95 for some wire and a signal generator. I use MultiTone 4+ Signal Generator for Audiobus by Thomas Gruber on the Apple App Store.
Figure 1: Use only the Sawtooth Wave
Figure 2: App In Use
You will need to spring for the in-app upgrade so that you can use the sawtooth wave. The transducer has an adhesive backing that you stick to the back of the brush. Solder a wire to each tab and attach it to the speaker terminals on the amplifier. You can plug your phone into the front of the amp via a 3.5mm terminated cable. When the transducer is properly set up you can spritz the album with the fluid. (I use a liberal amount of Unity Audio Vinyl Wash Pro enzyme formula. This is the best that I have found. It uses an expensive and superior selection of enzymes that, given the chance, will clean extra deeply.) I set the sawtooth wave to 175 Hz. I read somewhere that industrial sonic cleaning uses anywhere from 75 to 175 Hz.
Figure 3: Brush With Transducer In Action – Note puddle building up behind brush.
Be careful not to turn up the volume too high as requiring this tiny speaker with its super tiny xmax to work too hard will cause it to overheat. (For that reason, I do not recommend leaving it unattended until you have figured out the best settings. Similarly, I do not recommend using sweeps and ultra-high frequencies for the same reason.) I will leave the brush on the record for three to five minutes while I do something else (like writing this article). Then vacuum it up and rinse with Unity Audio Vinyl Rinse Pro. Voila. The proof is in the listening. Don't forget that new record sleeve. I use compressed air to blow out any dust remaining in the outer sleeve and the original inner sleeve if I am saving it for reference.
(Note that the Clearaudio double Matrix that was the inspiration for this project lists a sonic cleaning option.)
I have noted a significant improvement in the removal of surface noise using this method, however, sometimes one such cleaning is not enough. If the surface of the record is blemish-free on close inspection, but there is still a fair amount of surface noise after cleaning, it is either due to ancient debris remaining in the grooves or something more permanent that no amount of cleaning can cure. Nevertheless, I do find improvements on the second cleaning. The benefits of deep cleaning to be had with this method far outweigh the minimal expense and effort.
Let me know if you try it and what you discover so that I can pass any new info on to others. You can post on my blog page where this article is archived (a slightly different version) or e-mail me directly. Thanks.