My journey to improved vinyl performance-a new cleaning protocol
I have stumbled upon a remarkable and reproducible protocol for cleaning vinyl. This has resulted in the best sounding vinyl I have ever heard. All these albums have been cleaned previously by myself using well regarded commercial products and I have confirmed the improvements in sonic quality with others to help minimize expectation bias. I am positively psyched!! The sonic improvement is huge and worth the time for favorite discs. For those who want the Cliff's notes, skip to the last few sentences. First some history. My first machine was the V8 ultrasonic cleaner distributed by Dave Ratcliff. This was reviewed positively by Michael Fremer and when I learned the Harry Pearson owned one, I got one myself. Dave's machine could run 8 records at a time, but I would limit the cleaning to 4 per episode. The fluid bath was distilled water with a few drops of photoflo added. This worked quite well but the records had to air dry. During this phase I read everything I could online regarding protocols and the benefit of a fresh rinse after cleaning. I used the dryer that Dave subsequently built, but I didn't like it. Also, the aquarium filter for the bath was a joke. Having had multiple 300 gallon salt water aquariums, I tried to find a suitable aquarium filter and pump, but couldn't get the filtration fine enough to remove the debris. After cleaning 4-8 records, I felt the need to discard the bath and start again so I didn't blast the record surface with debris from earlier cleanings. Being obsessive, I reasoned the best way around this would be to preclean the records with a VPI, thus being able to use the ultrasonic bath for more cleanings and also for a fresh rinse and vacuum dry. Static wasn't an issue. I used several fluid types in the VPI and settled on AIVS #15 applied with an Osage brush with a 4x distilled water rinse. Records sounded great and I was supremely confident that cleaner records couldn't be had. Until my friend brought over his new Clearaudio sonic cleaner. I was sure his $6000 investment was a waste. We listened to Madonna's Ray of light (if you haven't heard this, you should. Not typical Madonna and awesome sound staging and production by William Orbit) that I had meticulously cleaned, and then after a 3 minute cycle on the Clearaudio. To my surprise, there was an audible improvement in sonics and staging. I had continued to research the best fluid baths and I changed to Rushton Paul's protocol, which is 0.13% Triton X-100 and 5% laboratory grade Isopropanol in distilled water. By this point I had rigged a 3 micron camping filter on the outspout of the V8 and was filtering and recycling the fluid. I started to find rust particles in the fluid that was traced to corrosion on the exterior valve. My wife, who loves me and accepts me for what I am, got me the Clearaudio unit for Christmas because I assumed the V8 ultrasonic cleaner was kaput and posed a threat to my vinyl. (Subsequently, I found that no rust made its way into the bath, the bath was contaminated during the release from the tank.) I was also mistakenly under the impression that the Clearaudio sonic was an ultrasonic cleaner, which it is not-it is sonically assisted. But, the recordings never sounded better and I gradually recleaned all the previously cleaned lp's just prior to play, which was quite easy. Again, I was confident that cleaner vinyl couldn't be had. Through this process I heard improvements at each stage. Subsequent reviews, though, indicated that the Clearaudio sonic MAY not be as good as ultrasonic cleaning. Now what to do? I just accepted that I had done the best I could and continued to read all I could find on cleaning. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Kirmuss introduced his vinyl restoration process, which seemed like snake oil. The reviews indicated the process worked, but this was too demanding for even my obsessive tendencies. Plus the idea of placing a final "polishing" of surfactant that tended to gunk up the stylus was a real turnoff. I was listening to Michael Fremer's video "some of my greatest sounding vinyl records" to see what discs he thought were great. Several times during the video, he mentioned that the Kirmuss technique had vastly improved sonics on his most important recordings. I was flabbergasted. It got me thinking. Perhaps the key isn't a single cycle in an ultrasonic bath, but shorter intervals with surfactant as a cleanser. As opposed to applying the surfactant directly to the vinyl surface as per Kirmuss, it was already in the bath that I used. So instead of a 15 minute cycle in the ultrasound and a rinse, I ran 3 five minute cycles and between the cycles I used 3 cc's of distilled water applied with a disc doctor brush while on the VPI for 7 revolutions to rinse. This is just an arbitrary protocol. This created a lot of foaming which was vacuumed off. I tried a second rinse cycle, which added little.After the 3rd ultrasonic cycle, I put the disc on the Clearaudio (why not, I have it and it adds no time to the process) and then a final rinse of 4x distilled AIVS water with 3% ETOH per Rush Paul. I will do this for my fav's and not for all discs because it does take some time. I think the take home message is that intermittant mechanical scrub with surfactant applied either directly to vinyl or via the bath and ultrasonic cleaning with a final rinse with 3% ethanol is a game changer. The small amounts of alcohol in these mixtures have been used for decades with no apparent damage to the vinyl. I apologize for the length of this post.