Something drummed into fans of analogue from the outset is that as well as the superb selection of new pressings hitting the market—both of new material and of well-mastered and engineered versions of older recordings—there is a vast used back catalogue to fall back on. The idea is that for a number of strong selling albums of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, you can pick up a copy in good order and add it to your collection for less than the cost of a new copy either on vinyl or on CD. For those of you that have musical tastes that lean toward artists and albums that are unlikely to benefit from a repressing, this takes on a greater importance still.
There’s a catch though—there’s always a catch. Used vinyl is an infinitely variable quantity. Sure we have a grading system that should give you a fairly good idea of what you happen to be buying but we all know that “should” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Experience can take us some way too—we will generally develop a mental list of physical stores and online sellers who tend to grade accurately and price accordingly. Even then, we can still be blindsided when something that we buy has been graded on sight and simply doesn’t deliver the sort of performance that we were hoping for.
So, what do we do under these conditions? One of the most consistently given pieces of advice that is offered up in these situation is to invest in some decent wet cleaning equipment. Wet cleaning, as opposed to dry cleaning, involves immersing the playing surface of the record in a solution of water and cleaning fluids with an aim of lifting out some of the detritus that has fallen into the playing grooves of the record and ensuring that you can hear more record and less debris. At the most basic level, this can be done with a steady hand, a container of water and a microfiber cloth, but this method is generally persisted with for as long as it takes for you ruin a label.
You might therefore turn your attention to a dedicated record cleaning machine. We have discussed the merits of what different levels of cleaner can offer and this is not a rehash of that. What this piece covers is exactly what a cleaning machine might be expected to handle in terms of less-than-perfect used records and what will be beyond their scope. I’ve run some tests with an Okki Nokki cleaning machine on some far-from-perfect vinyl and the results have been useful and in some ways a little surprising.
The first is that if the record you are looking to buy is only somewhat on the dirty side rather than physically damaged in some way, you will almost certainly be taking it back from its filthy grave with a record cleaning machine. It might seem odd to find a record in this condition but it is the simple result of it being left without a sleeve for any length of time. So long as the next thing that happened to it was being put back in a sleeve rather than used as a Frisbee, it will be undamaged and able to respond to a good clean. It’s worth noting that if you are looking at a job lot of cheap filthy records, you might end up ploughing through a greater value of cleaning fluid than you get back in the value of clean records, so you might want to limit your most determined restoration efforts to records you really can’t find in any other condition.
What is no less significant is the improvement in playback quality that can be achieved from sending records that look pretty good through a cleaning machine. The nature of debris that has entered the grooves of a record is that it is small enough to actually do that in the first place, so it is often too small to physically see on a visual inspection and standard surface brushing won’t necessarily show them up. Think of the effect of a good cleaning taking that record from a VG+ to a NM with the commensurate effect on how it sounds. Even brand new pressings are going to benefit from this sort of deep clean as this small debris is the sort of thing that can be picked up during the production process. As befits the record being less contaminated, it should require rather less effort—and cleaning fluid—to bring up to a playable standard.
Another area where the cleaning machine has proved helpful is that, aside from this shifting of minor debris, used pressings that show faint hairline scratches can usually be brought up to a playback standard that is more than acceptable. The process that this occurs by is getting any debris out of those faint scratches and ensuring that the stylus can make a clean pass through the groove itself, usually ignoring the scratch altogether. If the record in question has spent its life going in and out of a stiff cardboard sleeve for example, a good clean should ensure that while it never looks perfect, it will probably play just fine.
As you might expect though, any scratch that is deep enough to deform the groove wall and make it down to the groove information won’t be something that a clean, however deep, will be able to sort. Here, the risks of buying very dirty records can become starker as the RCM will handle the dirt just fine but won’t be able to help you with any damage that is revealed as a result of that clean. Once again, if the difference in price is manageable between buying a copy of a record that passes a visual inspection (and can hence be improved further by a clean) and one that is a lottery, you should generally play it safe. It is also worth stating the blindingly obvious that any form of warping is also something outside the remit of a clean.
Ultimately though, a cleaning machine can take used pressings that wouldn’t pass muster as-is and turn them into viable parts of your collection. With a Spin Clean starting from $80, it doesn’t take too many used records (even leaving the benefits on newer records out of the calculation for now) for a device of this nature to start to make a huge amount of sense. The $500 cost of the Okki Nokki is a slightly tougher call—you’re going to want to be happy with the rest of your system before you spend that sort of cash—although the ease of cleaning records with it does mean you tend to actually use it. Of course, this being the audio industry, if you want to spend (a lot) more than $500, you’ll be pleased to know that you can. What RCMs do isn’t magic and they can’t save a record that’s a lost cause but what they can do is bring a catalogue of material in used shops and bargain bins that you might have steered clear from into play and that’s surely a good thing.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.