How to clean your records to keep them looking good and sounding sweet

Even as Spotify and Apple Music have wrapped their tentacles around the music industry, a curious thing has happened: Vinyl records, those big black discs that were once all too common in garages and dorm rooms, have made a big resurgence.

With more people getting into vinyl, there is one thing that may come as something of a surprise to budding enthusiasts: Unlike files in an iTunes collection or on a streaming playlist, records can get extremely dirty.

Dust and grime easily accumulate in the grooves of vinyl records, and even a little dust or static electricity can heavily impact the sound quality of your analog audio. To enjoy vinyl to the fullest, owners must keep their records as clean as possible. Thankfully, it’s not too difficult. There are a few ways to clean and maintain your vinyl, even on a tight budget, and doing so will keep a record sounding pristine for decades.

We partnered up with Gary Alpern, owner of True Audiophile in Digital Trend’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, to learn more about how to protect your vinyl investments. Check out the video above, and keep on reading to learn more about the tools of the trade.

Carbon-fiber brushes ($15)

carbonfiberbrush

If your records are merely dusty, without caked-in grime, a simple brushing may suffice to clean them up. There are several companies that produce carbon-fiber brushes explicitly for dusting off records. A light touch is crucial here, as a heavy-handed motion could scratch the vinyl. Place one side of the brush on the vinyl, then sweep the dust outwards toward you. Use the back section of the brush to wipe off any dust you find and keep wiping over and over again until there’s no dust left.

A gentle brushing before every listen will keep larger concentrations of dust at bay, and ought to be part of any listening routine. Brushes are insufficient for deep cleaning, as they are not designed to get down into the grooves and, as mentioned, can scratch the record if too much force is used. Still, a carbon-fiber brush is a vital part of routine maintenance. Finally, don’t just use any old brush — make sure to choose one designed for use on vinyl, such as the Audioquest brush shown above, as those without anti-static protection could actually make the problem worse.

Record-cleaning machines

Because the grooves along a vinyl record are a millionth-of-an-inch thick, the only way to clean them completely is to use a powerful cleaning solution and a strong vacuum that can suck out the dirty liquid once it has done its job.

For that, you need a record-cleaning machine. There are many kinds of cleaning machines out there, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to thousands (which, in our opinion, is totally unnecessary). Here is our favorite:

how to clean vinyl records okki nokki
Okki Nokki Record Cleaner ($500)

A bi-directional cleaner with a powerful vacuum, the Okki Nokki will easily remove all deeply entrenched dirt and grime from your favorite vinyl.

After clamping a record down on the machine, simply use a brush to spread cleaning fluid around the record, then use the cleaner’s vacuum to suck it all up. The process is quick and easy, and the device has a solid build quality. Aside from being noisy, the only downside to the Okki Nokki is its $500 price, which will keep it out of the hands of the average collector.

If that’s too rich for your blood, many record stores offer cleaning services. Call around to local shops and see if they’ll do it for you for a small fee, or if they know of anyone locally who cleans vinyl. Another option is to make friends with someone who has one and borrow it every once in a while to keep your records sounding their best. Ideally, you should clean your records every 5 to 10 plays.

Stylus/needle cleaners

If you listen to a lot of music on your turntable, chances are your stylus has been collecting gunk and grime for some time. A dirty stylus can remove the vibrant dynamics that you want to hear from your favorite music and, worse yet, can even have a “lathe” effect, damaging the grooves of your records. Here are three great types of stylus cleaners to consider:

Stylus brush ($5 to $20)

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These tiny brushes sometimes come with high-end turntables, but can also be purchased for $5 to $20 online. Simply take the brush and pull it lightly across the stylus, moving the brush toward you from back to front. Be sure not to go side-to-side or front-to-back, as that can damage the stylus. We can’t stress that enough — don’t break your stylus!

Stylus pillow ($40)

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Among the most “magical” of the cleaning options is the stylus pillow. Simply drop your needle on this polymer bubble, and it will slowly sink in, leaving behind any debris when you lift it.

Ultrasonic Cleaner ($150)

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The most expensive stylus cleaners are ultrasonic cleaners that use low-frequency oscillation to “shake” free any debris that may be sitting on your needle. They work quite well but may not be ideal for all but the most discriminating audiophiles due to their relatively steep price point. Note: In the video, it is recommended to use an ultrasonic cleaner for 15 minutes. The cleaner should be used for approximately 15 seconds. 

Bonus: The wood glue method

woodgluevinyl2
/u/RetroHacker / Reddit
/u/RetroHacker/Reddit

For a foolproof (if lengthy) hand-cleaning method that actually gets into the grooves, using wood glue is a possible alternative to the vacuum cleaning method described above. This method will require a great deal of patience but is certain to leave a record immaculate. The only ingredients necessary are wood glue and a tool to spread it around on a record, such as a piece of card stock.

To begin, drizzle the wood glue around the record. To make the process easier, it’s helpful to have the record gently spinning on a turntable. If you have a spare record player, for example, that might be a good use for it. Be sure to pour an ample amount of wood glue on the record; once it dries, you want to be able to pull it all off in one piece. If the glue is too thin, it will break apart as you try to lift it.

Once you have a healthy amount of glue on the record, spread it around gently, making sure to cover the surface of the vinyl entirely. Do not get glue on the record label, however, unless you want to peel it off. Once done, let it sit until it dries, for about 24 hours or so. The glue should form a solid piece on top of the vinyl. Now comes the fun part. Grab the edge of the glue and slowly peel it off the record. The glue should grab any particulate on the vinyl, even in the grooves, leaving your record spotless.

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