Just Played #12: A Column About Vinyl Records

Just Played #12: A Column About Vinyl Records

How to keep your collection clean...

With the customary slow start to the release calendar that a new year brings, we thought now was the ideal time to tackle the topic of record cleaning. Despite the fairly regular pieces about how much vinyl is purchased but not played and the occasional feeling that some releases are being created with the emphasis upon looking at rather than actually listening to them, it’s a safe assumption that the readers of this review column want their purchases to sound good.

Over the years, fans have resorted to hot water and soap in the kitchen sink, the cheap and cheerful manual device Spin Clean and more complex and costly vacuum-driven record cleaning machines. In the not too distant past, an online trend for using wood glue to bond with the dirt and then peel away provided some eye-catching but often mixed testimonies.

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Before we go any further, it is probably worth stating that the higher end of vinyl cleaning kit is not cheap and is an undeniable luxury. For those with small collections or limited budgets, the priority will likely remain the acquisition of new music.

However, once a sizeable stash of releases begins to necessitate repeat trips to Ikea and fraught discussions about what percentage of a room should be playable, the cost is offset a little by the ‘per disc’ calculation that belongs to the same set of maths which justifies buying more records in an order because the postage is a fixed price.

In all seriousness, my first significant machine was the Okki Nokki vacuum cleaning machine which was purchased after my wife pointed out that the cost – currently £435 - should be considered in the context of how many records it would be used upon. 

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There are other similar models which require the record to be clamped to a rotating platter before the application of bespoke cleaning fluid, which is diluted with purified water and then brushed into the rotating grooves of the disc. The vacuum tube is then lowered into place and fired up for several rotations to dry the disk. It is moderately labour intensive, quite noisy but pretty successful. Plenty of second hand records have achieved a new lease of – much less crackly – life as a result of that product and it was pretty adept at tackling a lot of the general detritus that new records are often beleaguered by, straight out of the sleeve. It isn’t a miracle worker, but it’s an effective cleaner that improved many titles for me. Static was an issue, at the very least not removing what was already present on the disc and sometimes even seeming to add it. I hasten to add, all of this is entirely anecdotal experience based on eight years of use and results will vary based on location and environment.

As well as possessing a substantial collection commenced at the age of six that merits careful attention, the desire to try and create as level a playing field as possible for the reviews of vinyl quality in this column resulted in a conversation last summer with the makers of Degritter, an ultrasonic record cleaner which was launched via an online crowdfunding campaign and had been doing the rounds of the world’s hi-fi shows prior to the pandemic. For the past six months, I have been putting one of the Estonian company’s machines through its paces, using it on the new titles I have written about here, second hand purchases I’ve picked up from various sources and revisiting problematic titles in the racks upon which I’d yet to give up.

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Ultrasonic record cleaning is the gold standard amongst the audiophile community as a result of its ability to get into the spaces that other products just can’t reach. High frequency waves create microscopic bubbles in a bath of distilled water which then explode and release tiny jets of water which are targeted into the grooves of the selected disc. You can easily find a more detailed explanation of the science if that is your thing but, just as I don’t read up on the specifics behind the operation of my toaster, hoover or shower, my main concern will always be about whether or not it actually works.

Firstly, the price of ultrasonic machines means that they need to do more than just work. They have to be revelatory, consistent and straightforward in order to come anywhere close to justifying their cost. It’s easy enough to find DIY guidance online to guide you through the process of assembling a rudimentary device at a far lower cost, with which many have had success but, for a custom-built product researched from scratch and built to a pleasingly robust standard, you’ll be needing to think of it as an investment. This column is all too aware that for many the Degritter, at £2,450 in the UK, will be well beyond their budget, but for those looking into this world it is worth getting to know this remarkable bit of kit before making any final decision.

The main gripe that most people have with the lower cost options mentioned previously is the labour-intensive nature of the process. To clean the record, you need to be physically engaged for the duration. Whether spinning the disc, applying the brush or activating the vacuum, it is a time consuming and hands-on process. While some enjoy the methodical routine, there is much to be said for one of the great selling points of the ultrasonic method. With the Degritter, the disc is deposited in the top-loading slot before selecting one of three cycles (quick, medium, heavy) and walking away. The process is automatic, including an adjustable drying process which allows you to return to the scene and whip out a cleaned, dried disc that is ready for action. The noise is relatively low during the actual cleaning and, should you opt for one of the less intensive drying cycles, you could have it operating in the same room in which you were listening to music without it being too intrusive.

Having destroyed a record previously when a metal part from inside the cleaning brush slipped out mid-rotation during the preparation for a vacuum clean, I understand the fear many users will have around handling their records in this way and subjecting them to external forces. The process with the Degritter, however, is pleasingly straightforward and will calm the risk-averse. Holding the disc vertically, you simply lower it through a relatively narrow slot in the top of the machine until it rests on the rollers inside. All subsequent cleaning, rotation and drying is done automatically by the unit once the user presses start.

As with many devices intended for this purpose, the contents of the tank are not readily available in the home. The Degritter is supplied with a bottle of the company’s recommended cleaning fluid and a small amount is added to each fresh tank of distilled water; a standard bottle of five litres will see you through four tank refills. The machine will prompt you to change its filter – a small, spongy cylinder - and, by extension its water, every 50 cycles. A bag of reusable filters is supplied and they only need a quick rinse in hot water to be ready for another use, requiring minimal effort to ensure the smooth running of a system which extracts small dirt particles from the main cleaning tank once dislodged.

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The programming of the device genuinely makes it a delight to use, with a rotating dial on the front providing access to the different washes, numerous fan settings and a range of advisory notices. Consistent use will trigger a slow down due to high water temperature and you’ll also get a notification if too much of the water in your tank has evaporated. As you get to grips with the minutiae of its operation, the customer service team are pleasing keen to assist with any question you can throw at them. On numerous occasions, I sought additional information about different aspects of the process and every time received user-friendly guidance that actually worked.

One of the great perks of the Degritter, which will be a genuine game changer for those with sizeable collections, is its ability to deliver remarkable anti-static performance. As anyone who has found themselves physically unable to remove a new record from the remarkable clutches of an overly-intimate paper sleeve knows, pretty much all new releases arrive with a static charge that encourages dust and dirt to cling to the disc.

The biggest reason for people tinkering with their turntable mats is the tendency of them to adhere to the records they are playing because of this force. Static is sometimes audible during playback, adding extra clicks into the soundstage, and its capacity to encourage small and unwanted materials to nestle against the disc can add further disruption to the music. To have this eliminated – and with the right choice of replacement inner sleeve this can be a long-term solution – is one of the single biggest improvements any vinyl-lover could bestow upon their racks of records.

Some additional adapters allow for the cleaning of 7” and 10” discs, if you’re keen to give the whole collection the once over. At £54 each, they’re not cheap but they’re considerably less expensive than similar adapters for comparable machines. The team at Degritter confirmed that these are being kept as optional extra purchases so as not to add any further costs to the main unit and my use is best described as occasional. These twelve inch plastic circles have the relevant sized gap cut in their middles to accommodate the smaller discs, held in place by four malleable and adjustable rubber clips which have no impact on the records and exert minimal pressure. Once you’ve used them a few times, the process is remarkably straightforward and just as effective as with their full size cousins.

The cleaning itself is impressive, whether ridding new releases of factory dirt or tackling well-loved oldies that have seen it all. Several records that have been played on pretty much every set up I’ve had only needed one heavy cycle to massively reduce surface noise and return the songs to centre stage. That said, most of the records I’ve purchased new tend to have been well cared for so I needed some more long-suffering second-hand challenges to put it through its paces.

It’s not a miracle worker and, obviously, any actual surface damage to a disc is never going to be improved by cleaning. However, some records which had been wet-played (a niche approach to cleaning by listening with the disc coated either with plain water or some sort of cleaning solution) lost a considerable amount of their trademark noise after several cycles in the Degritter. Several Nineties relics which had clearly had almost as much fun as their original owners during their heady youth lost their background rustle and were rendered almost silent by a heavy wash. Most pleasingly, new releases which emerge with lines of paper detritus and other residue from the manufacturing process are, more often than not, near perfect in playback after a run through the Degritter. I have written about several problematic pressing plants over the history of this column and I have never been able to fully subdue the impact of the unwanted dirt until now.

It is this genuinely unique package of thorough cleaning of old records, immediate elevation of new arrivals and removal of static charges that has truly transformed my listening. Those who buy plenty of new vinyl will recognise the anxious feeling that descends during the first play of a new title as you pay attention for possible imperfections. While this machine won’t solve warps, off-centre pressings or scratches from unwanted junk in the sleeve, it takes care of plenty of the other more common issues.

As I said at the start, this level and price of kit is not going to be for everyone and only really becomes cost effective once you’ve got a sizeable number of records in need of a little love. However, if you are in the market for a high-end record cleaner then you would be wise to consider the Degritter. With minimal fuss, consistent results and that crucial anti-static factor, I now cannot imagine my collection without it.

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Words: Gareth James

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