Cover Story: Cleaning & Caring For Your Vinyl Collection

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This week's feature, "Playing for Keeps," takes a look at the resurgence of the vinyl record. When you think about it, vinyl is probably the most enduring musical format in the history of home audio. How many people's record collections were started with hand-me-downs from their parents?

But it's not just old records that need TLC. When you buy that special edition LP on Record Store Day this weekend, you'll want to do a few things to it to ensure you'll be able to pass it down to your future offspring, or at least listen to it for as many years as you want.

For this advice, I turned to the biggest audiophile I know, my own husband Christopher, who has something like 700 records, nearly all of them vintage, and most purchased for under $2.

Step 1 -- Buy some records Christopher likes to shop at garage sales and estate sales, "places where you can get people's private collections, which are often better cared for." He says he won't buy anything over $2 unless it's in pristine condition and it's something he's been searching for for a long time.

"Look for scratches and mold on the record. If you want to be a real nerd, you can bring a portable record player to listen for quality. Sometimes mold can be removed by cleaning." (See Step 2.)

"I also look for the "parrot marks" -- where the corners are roughed up, because that usually means the record hasn't been carefully cared for. If there's an imprint of the record on the sleeve, you can tell immediately it hasn't been cared for correctly."

Step 2 -- Clean your records Christopher uses two products to clean his records before they even touch the turntable. The first is called the Spin Clean. It's kind of like a gentle car wash for your record, and uses velvet brushes to get into the grooves of an album without damaging the vinyl. The special soap used with the Spin Clean contains a surfactant, so the water rinses clean from the record and leaves no residue.

After the Spin Clean, Christopher uses another device called a Nitty Gritty which is a kind a vacuum that will give the record a final deep cleaning. Some people use a special solution for this, but distilled water works just fine, and rinses the record completely clean.

Heights Vinyl sells both cleaning products, and uses then to restore the vintage records that come into the shop. The Spin Clean is about $80 for the full kit, and the basic model of the Nitty Gritty is about $415.

One thing that makes Heights Vinyl unique is that they store restores pretty much every album that comes their their doors using the Nitty Gritty.

"I've taken records where they've been under water, in dirt, where the cover was wet and is, like, glues to the album, and run it through the Nitty Gritty. It might take two runs, but it'll play like brand new," says Heights Vinyl owner Craig Brown. "Scratches you can't do anything about, but anything organic, it'll take it off. They're not cheap, but its the best investment you can make for your collection."

Note that even brand-new, freshly-opened records should be cleaned before the first play. This will help get rid of residue from the pressing process, and can prevent static buildup from those crinkly plastic wrapping most records come in.

Step 3 -- Replace the sleeves Once your record is nice and squeaky clean, you don't want to put it back in that yellowed, tattered sleeve, do you? For every record you clean, you should replace the old sleeve with a new, clean antistatic sleeve. Antistatic sleeves help reduce pops when the record plays, and keeps dust out of the grooves when the record is being stored.

But don't get rid of the old sleeve just yet. Original inner sleeves can sometimes add value to a record, especially if they're printed with images or lyrics. If so, you can store the record in its new sleeve behind the original printed sleeve.

There's not much you can do to restore an album cover, but you can protect it from further damage by putting it into a clear plastic outer sleeve. The standard is 3mm, which is think enough to protect the cardboard. Heights Vinyl sells both types of sleeves -- $5 for 20 antistatic inner sleeves, and $5 for 25 polypropylene outer sleeves.

Here's one more tip: load the sleeved record into the cover so that the openings on the sleeves do not line up. This will keep the LP from accidentally sliding out of the cover.

Step 4 -- Store them correctly You know that awesome Rolling Stones cover designed by Andy Warhol for the album Sticky Fingers? The one with the real zipper (like anyone's looking at the zipper)? You know why, in part, original copies of that album are so hard to find? Because the damn zipper made storing the album difficult, and many copies are warped from the raised area in the middle.

Your records should always be stored vertically, with the spines facing out and with plenty of room between each record. Cramming them into a shelf can warp the vinyl. Keep them in a dehumidified, cool place, out of direct sunlight. Do not keep them in your car. Seriously. We know people who have done this.

You also shouldn't stack them on top of each other -- this can also cause warping, and can cause any grit inside the album cover to push into the grooves of the record. If you're ever shopping for record and see that the cover has round imprints of the records inside them, they were likely stored stacked on top of each other.

Plastic crates are the cheap and easy solution for storage. You can also often find cool vintage record stands at antique stores.

Step 5 -- Listen to your collection Buy yourself a needle brush and an anti-static velvet brush to keep by your record player. Use the velvet brush to dust off each record before playing, and use the needle brush both before and after you listen to an album to keep gunk from dirtier records from damaging clean records. Try not to play any records before they've been cleaned. A dirty record can damage a needle and a damaged needle can damage another record.

But most of all, enjoy your record collection, and appreciate the warmth that comes along with listening to music actually made from sound vibrations instead of 1s and 0s. And if your records can't be saved, we have some ideas for how to repurpose them.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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