Having talked you through the eight cheapest and easiest ways to clean your records by hand, Paul Rigby tackles the high-grade alternative; record cleaning machines. But a word of warning from the off: spotless vinyl may not come cheap, but nor does replacing priceless rarities.
Words: Paul Rigby
If you love vinyl and you have the cash, the only way to properly clean your records is with a record cleaning machine.
Yet the world of the record cleaning machine (RCM) can be a confusing place. This is a scene where weird and the wacky technologies thrive and where the current choice of RCMs is wide enough to confuse even the most experienced music fan.
What exactly is a RCM, though? If I was to reduce the good and the bad RCMs and the myriad methods of cleaning those grooves into a (very) general sentence then it would be something like this: It’s an electrically powered, dumb record player whose arm doesn’t play your record but, instead, moves across the rotating record’s surface, sucking up dirt.
This is the main difference between manual cleaning and the RCM. Whereas manual cleaning shifts muck around your LP and hopefully removes enough to make a difference, there is the probability that it will not remove all of it. How much depends partly on you and your chosen manual cleaning method. More proactive manual cleaners (i.e. alcohol-based) also threaten to damage the vinyl itself. The RCM can actually suck dirt from your record’s grooves, taking it off the record and entirely away from the area while doing so in a gentle manner.
RCMs are best for cleaning your records but, remember, they are not miracle workers. If you clean a record from a charity shop, for example, a RCM will not magically fix groove damage, scratches or dents. Also, there may be grime baked onto the grooves after years of residence which nothing short of a hammer and chisel would shift. When buying a RCM, always retain a measure of realism about its capabilities. That said, even for a disaster area of a charity shop find, you are still going to improve the sound quality immeasurably with a RCM.
As you might expect, there are low cost RCMs and there are more expensive models. Below, I’ve tried to present a broad overview to cover most budgets.
A good quality RCM that is solid, performs well and offers great value for money. Instead of putting the record on a platter, you clamp it to an enlarged spindle which reduces contamination on the non-cleaning side of the record. The RCM also arrives with a hinged dust lid. You can buy this RCM as a ready to go item or in kit form at a reduced price. The motor is noisy, though.
Available in black or white with an optional dust cover, it arrives with a platter with a reversible direction initiated a touch of a button (this is a standard feature on most RCMs, though). Unlike some RCMs, it features an aluminium chassis and offers vacuum cleaning tubes specifically for 10” and 7” records.
This is the cheapest of a large range of Nitty Gritty RCMs. As you can see, it’s a compact design that is ideal for people with space issues and it can easily be stored when not in use. It uses the spindle puck system rather than a platter to rest your records upon to reduce dirt recontamination. Includes a storage area for liquid and tools.
A long standing enclosed design with a 30 year history, the VPI offers a high torque motor, heavy duty parts, self-aligning vacuum tube and a powerful suction motor while the internal fluid collection system is made from stainless steel. Also includes a built-in dust cover that closes flush with the top of the chassis, useful to maximise space.
This RCM performs calmly and quietly and comes with an optional exhaust fan to prevent overheating. It cleans both sides of the record without flipping it over. It includes a single switch operation with many automatic features including a fluid dispensing system.
The rather swish looking, robust chassis covers the motor which has been damped to reduce noise. Often, lower cost RCMs can be horribly noisy – you feel that you’re sitting next to a hoover running at full blast. Not here. Also, the motor switch allows you to change platter direction while you clean or vacuum in one direction and then in another.
This is the basic model. More expensive units feature more powerful and quieter motors, improved chassis types and so on. Based on the system created by Percy Wilson, the then Technical Editor of Gramaphone magazine, in 1964, this is arguably the best RCM in the world. Using a quiet, medical-quality, motor the Loricraft’s metal arm uses a renewable cotton-like material to act as a spacer between the record surface and arm which means that the arm never touches the record. The upshot is no static electricity build-up or dirt recontamination. A superb design.
Uses cavitation bubbles to clean your record: the same system used to clean circuit boards and surgical instruments. That is, high-frequency pressure waves generated by ultrasonic transducers agitating the liquid inside produces tiny cavitation bubbles, pushing them into the nooks and crannies of the groove walls and valleys of your records and agitating like hell. The force exerted on the vinyl by this cavitation bubble-action dislodges and removes dirt and debris that standard cleaning brushes just can’t reach. Does it work? Oh yes.