Record Cleaning For The Soul

Lately I’ve found a lot of comfort in cleaning my record collection. Maybe it’s just a distraction for a tired brain, or maybe it’s my anal-retentive, OCD tendencies up to their old tricks. Or possibly it’s just as simple as records need cleaned regardless of how shiny they look on the surface. Even those brand new slabs of wax can carry with them tiny particles within those grooves that cause unnecessary pops, clicks, cracks, and gives the overall sound a slight fuzzy distortion when you hit the higher registers. It’s just good practice to clean albums before you spin them. It’s good for the turntable needle and it’s good for the ears.

When I first bought my turntable back in October of 2008 I purchased shortly after a record cleaning kit. The ‘Vinyl Style’ record cleaning kit. Came with a lint brush, a bottle of record cleaner, a needle cleaner, and a fine brush to go over the record once you’ve done the initial cleaning. I used it pretty religiously at first. I was buying a lot of used records so it felt necessary to clean them pretty good before playing. I didn’t clean new albums as much because at the time I figured “Well, they’re new. They look clean, so these should be fine.” As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. But I was getting impatient and the ritual of cleaning vinyl before I played it seemed a bit much. Seemed unnecessary.

So it became more of a once in a while kind of thing. Like when I put an album on and I could hear the slight distortion in higher registers, or a mound of fuzz formed on the needle. Or a used record visually looked dirty. That’s when I’d clean albums. No other time. I hadn’t made cleaning vinyl a part of my process, and I wouldn’t for a few years.

There were a few purchases over the years that were extremely frustrating, and all were Radiohead-related oddly. 2016s A Moon Shaped Pool was one of them. I bought a copy of the indie exclusive colored vinyl only to end up taking it back for a standard black copy. The distortion level was absolutely awful. No matter how much I cleaned the vinyl the sound wouldn’t clear up. Awful distortion throughout, I borrowed a heavy duty record cleaner, the kind where the vinyl gets submerged in water. It didn’t do much at all. I cleaned both copies several times and it didn’t do much. I ended up buying a special edition of the record with a booklet that included the artwork of Stanley Donwood and a 45 single of the band’s “Bond” song. Even that copy had to be cleaned several times for it to play. The same thing happened with Thom Yorke’s Anima. I ended up returning the indie exclusive orange copy for standard black and still had some noise with that. I even returned The Smile’s album this year for a new copy. Bad pressings? Bad luck? I don’t know. I guess there were multiple pressing plants used and some turned out great, while others not so much. When you spend $35-$40 on a single record you(I) expect some semblance of quality. $40 isn’t throwaway money, not to me anyways.

I have to be smart about spending dough on albums these days, and that kind of money for vinyl is an investment. I’m sure there are people that buy to just collect. They don’t care about the quality of the sound. I mean, if you’re listening to albums on one of those all-in-one deals like Crosley makes then the sound quality isn’t going to bother you as much. My system isn’t audiophile level. Not even close. My turntable is an Audio Technica AT-PL120 that I bought off Amazon for $210 in 2008. My receiver is an analog Onkyo that was $170. I’ve got 30+ year old Pioneer tower speakers, an ancient Denon dual cassette deck, and a RCA sub woofer I bought at Radio Shack in like 2000. It’s a hobbled together hi fi system, but it sounds good to me. The preamp on the Audio Technica works great. I don’t have the kind of dough to burn that would afford me tube preamps and a $1,200 platter. Maybe someday, but probably not. To my ears, what I have sounds pretty damn good. And when I play a subpar slab of wax I can tell, and it’s disappointing.

It was my birthday last week. December 2nd I turned 49. My wife and oldest daughter and I drove to a nearby town and my wife bought me some new boots, some khakis, and a new flannel shirt. We hit Ignition Music which is a very cool independent record shop that resides in an old garage. They have small concerts there, and it’s next door to a coffee shop(you can access the coffee shop through the record shop. Pretty cool.) Anyways, I find two OG copies of First Light and Red Clay from Freddie Hubbard. I’d been wanting these and found both in NM condition. Red Clay was on the wall with a pretty hefty price tag. Well, I had some birthday money and treated myself.

I spun them and they sounded great at home. I’d decided since I spent $70 on a record that maybe I should clean it, too. I pulled out my homemade cleaner and decided since it’d been a long time since I made a new batch I’d put some fresh together. Isopropyl alcohol, distilled water, a drop of dish detergent, and some spot-free rinse. I cleaned that 50-year old album, then put it back on the turntable. The sound was pristine. Kind of magical, really. Even not cleaned that Hubbard record was on point, but with 50 years of grime removed it was on another level. I thought to myself maybe I should wash a few more? I’d had a stack upstairs that I hadn’t cleaned and thought I’d go for it. I set up at the kitchen counter and started spritzing records with my homemade record brew.

There was something kind of cathartic about the process. I’d always enjoyed cleaning my albums, but it never felt therapeutic before. It felt like something that just needed to be done. Cleaning that stack of wax felt like it was a part of the ritual. Vinyl is a ritual; from searching shelves and bins at the record store, to coming home and cutting the plastic off, to pulling the vinyl from the sleeves and reading the liner notes, to gawking at the gatefold sleeve, to finally putting the vinyl on the platter and dropping the needle. It’s the process and it’s kind of wonderful. Taking the time to clean the records is another ritual, and one I think I’m finally adopting into the fold now.

$22 socks. Worth every penny.

I’m finding that these little moments are what I crave more and more these days. The older I get, especially. The things I appreciate are far more different than what they were 10 years ago. Turning 49 I didn’t feel any sort of shift, but quiet moments seem more special and significant. I bought a pair of $22 socks when I got the birthday boots. Five years ago I’d a stuck my nose up at the idea of spending that kind of money on socks, and when my wife brought them to me and I saw the price tag I sort of chortled a bit about it. But then there was sort of this shift in my head. I thought to myself, “You know, I bet those are damn comfortable socks. I’d like to try those out.” So I grabbed that pair of wool socks, along with another pair that were a little thinner(and on sale for $14). You know what? They’re the most comfortable socks I’ve ever worn in my life. I don’t think I can go back to those 6-pk socks for $10. My feet deserve better. I deserve better.

So yeah, I’m 49 years old now. And the things I appreciate these days are a solid, comfortable boot, $22 socks, a homemade lemon birthday cake, sifting through bins of vinyl on a cloudy Friday afternoon, and cleaning records. They’re simple things, but essential ingredients for a healthy mind, body, and soul.

3 thoughts on “Record Cleaning For The Soul

  1. Hey J…belated Happy Birthday pal! Great writeup and I’m glad to hear that you treated yourself to some birthday vinyl! I’m like you in regards to my stereo gear. My Sony turntable is from 1993, my technics speakers are from the 80s and my amp is I think from the early 90s as well. Let’s just call it Vintage Gear for the both of us!
    Cheers Dude!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vintage gear, exactly! I mean I grew up in the late 70s/early 70s with my parents Pioneer system. It was nothing special but it sounded great to my ears. And when they weren’t home and it was just my older brother and I it got real loud. 😂 Maybe when I’m old and retired I might upgrade(what else will I have to do?) if there’s grandkids to influence, all the better.

      And thanks. Birthdays are just another day. It’s all in who you celebrate them with that makes them special.

      Liked by 1 person

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