For most of us, static electricity is a curious throwback to school science lessons and something that we can use from time to time to cheer up small children or enrage our pets. For regular users of records though, static electricity is a routine annoyance that affects audio quality and makes the business of listening to music a great deal less pleasurable than it should be. Thankfully, there are ways and means of dealing with static build-up that don't break the bank or require delving into mysticism to work.
First though, a confession. Living as I do on a damp island where humidity rarely drops below the point where condensation is more of an issue than static, my own personal requirements for dealing with static have never been terribly demanding. The moment that you find yourself in dryer climes though, static can become a serious issue. In some parts of the US, the issue has been sufficiently serious that during the early days of CD, it was possible to see stronger sales of players in areas that had historically suffered badly with static- even though other electronics are not immune.
What's the Deal With The Static?
So what is happening when your turntable is affected by static? Static electricity is the imbalance of electric charge between two surfaces or objects. When brought into contact with one another (or, if the charge is high enough, simply in the vicinity of one another), electrons will flow from the positively charged to the negatively charged surface. The bulk of static electricity we encounter at a day to day level is down to the triboelectric effect where weakly bonded electrons are exchanged between materials.
Record players and records are particularly susceptible to static for a few reasons. Firstly, in the vinyl material itself, it has a very suitable medium for the buildup of static charge and ironically, the thicker and purer the vinyl used for the record (in the pursuit of better pressings, lower noise floor and higher quality perceived or actual), the worse the issue gets. This is why some 80s pressings that are thin enough to read through and pressed on vinyl that has feels more like recycled bottles is less prone to static build-up than some of the rather lovely pressings on sale today.
Secondly, the need to spin the platter- quite often by the traction exerted by a rubber belt, record players themselves are almost as effective at generating static as they are making music. Most designs have reasonable earthing in part to deal with this but with the electrical signals being generated by the cartridge being as low as they are, static can significantly affect playback. Neither are the downsides purely sonic ones. A positively charged record will attract dust and debris onto the playing surface, causing more noise and interference as it does so.
Stopping The Pops
So what can we do about it? Treating static effectively occurs on two levels. You can seek to alter the surroundings of your system to make them less suitable for static to be an issue, or you can apply specific treatments your equipment and media. The first part of this can be admirably simple. If you live in a house with air conditioning, dealing with static might be as simple as opening a window and allowing for the relative humidity levels in the room to rise a little. If the outside is just as bone dry as the inside, you can use a humidifier in you listening room to achieve the same thing. If you don't have a huge amount of space to treat, a humidifier should be available from $30 and up. In even better news, not all of them contain a random number of mood lights or the ability to spray aromatherapy oils around.
If you want to deal with static specifically on your records, you have a few options available to you. The first and potentially the most cost effective is to switch to a cork mat if your turntable allows for it. We've covered the sonic attributes of cork in another piece but as a material it has considerable effectiveness when used as an insulator against static electricity. Some companies like Pro-Ject offer a cork mat designed to fit their designs and third party products are available from about the $25 mark. Other non cork anti-static mats are also available but the effectiveness of these tends to be variable and some of them tend to shed fibers onto your records with worrying enthusiasm.
Next up is treating the records themselves. This can be done in two different ways but the results are most effective if they are combined. Substituting the cardboard sleeve that many modern records are supplied in for an anti static one has the benefits of drawing off any positive charge that the record might have before you place it on the platter. On a matter of day to day ease of use, it is often much simpler to get records out of these sleeves than it is the original cardboard ones. These sleeves are usually sold in batches of 25 or 50 but if you can live with a slightly harder design to get on and off, the Taguchi sleeves sold in batches of 100, often for under $20 are also effective.
For best results, this can be combined with an antistatic treatment of the record itself. One of the most long running options to do this is the Milty Zerostat series of anti static 'guns.' These work on the piezoelectric principle and work by generating a huge positive static charge in a crystal inside the device. This causes charge to flow off the record before being neutralised when you release the trigger. It can seem a bit far fetched to spend $100 on a plastic device containing a magic crystal but with a little practise, it can be incredibly effective at removing static charge on records. When combined with the sleeves, you can effectively eliminate static as an issue.
If the Zerostat comes across as a little expensive, there are antistatic brushes and cloths that can achieve some of the same effects for less money. As these rely on direct contact to the record, it is worth pointing out that the effectiveness will be variable depending on your own levels of charge- you can often improve the effectiveness of them if you holding onto something like a radiator with you other hand at the same time. If you have really serious issues with static, it is probably worth holding out for the Zerostat but some of these options can work in less serious circumstances.
As a nuclear option, you can revisit what we have already written about record cleaning machines. As a useful side effect of the cleaning process, cleaning machines also eliminate any static charge on a record so if you pop it straight into a clean antistatic sleeve straight after doing so, you can have a record that is completely free of noise and additional static. Record cleaning machines are an extreme answer to dealing with static but viewed as part of a wider system of keeping a large and treasured record collection in tip top condition, they make a lot of sense.
Ultimately, the amount of issues that static will cause you will vary enormously depending on where you are, the time of year and any number of other variables. If you do suffer from static build-up though, it doesn't make much sense to try and put up with it. Some detail changes to your room and accessories should be enough to contain and eliminate it and get you back on the path to listening pleasure.