Ultrasonic Record Cleaning

Let’s face it–machines like the Audio Desk Systeme and the “V8” do a phenomenal job of getting records clean. But for the bulk of us record buyers, these may both be out of reach.  Are they worth the money?  Let’s look into what makes them special.

Ultrasonic cleaners work better, there is no doubt about it.  Despite trying numerous cleaning fluids over the years, including one of my own (which was suggested by a biochemist who is familiar with the unique properties of vinyl and various solvents and chemicals), not one of them really ever outcleaned the other.  My less expensive home-brew cleaner cleaned no better, or no worse, than the expensive cleaners, but the small amount I spent on chemicals is enough to make me nearly a lifetime supply.

Of the commercial cleaners, some seemed to be worse than others (like the hyper-purified RRL fluid that never stayed down in the grooves and in most cases left records noisy), or the Disc Doctor fluid which did nothing but cause grief from having to rinse records three or four times to get all of the detergent out of the grooves.  The enzymatic cleaner I had is probably past its shelf life at this point; last few times I’ve used it, I have still not been able to get rid of mold, fingerprints, etc.  (Yet there is a home-brew solution for that also.)

The problem with the vacuum cleaning method: it just simply doesn’t work.  Oh sure, it does get off a lot of surface dust and dirt, and will get rid of some of the grime like fingerprints and other unknown substances.  But no vacuum system out there is able to really lift up and loosen that crud.  And don’t get me started on the Spin Clean; brushing dirty water around the record is not doing it any favors.  (Although it is a fantastic pre-cleaning method.)

Have you ever had a really dirty frying pan, one where food is caked on?  Sure, you could sit and chip and scrub away at it for quite a while; it is difficult work.  Yet if you let it sit in hot water with a little bit of detergent for an hour or two, or overnight, often most of that crud will wash away the next day, with only minimal help needed from a scrubber or sponge.

I have often wondered about a better way to clean records, since with the vacuum process, the fluid is only briefly on the record.  That is not enough to loosen up the crud.  I’d thought of something like a thin blade of water, like a power washer, but that would be difficult to achieve without making a mess (literally), and possibly damage the grooves if the stream of water were too strong.  Soaking a side of a record for several minutes or even half an hour is possible, but you’re constantly rewetting the surface.

Ultrasonic may have crossed my mind over the past couple of decades, but given the logistics of it, I never gave it much thought.  How could you clean a record if you needed to submerge it into a very large, flat tub?

Thankfully, others have figured out how to do this.  By only partially submerging the record and rotating it slowly, the ultrasonic systems create tiny bubbles that explode against the vinyl surface and dislodge the dirt.  (This is called cavitation.)  The record is rotated in the bath for several minutes in order for the dirt to fully dislodge.

Is it effective?  Many who have used it on previously vacuum cleaned records have reported cloudy water and gunk in the bottom of the tank.  Proof right there that the records are not getting cleaned.  Users have also reported how “sparkling clean” the records looked afterward.

In my mind, cavitation cleaning cures the major problem with wipe-and-vac systems: it sufficiently works the record surface enough to loosen the dirt, not just get it wet and loosen a small portion of it.

The only remaining problem?  Cost.  The V8 starts around $1,500, and you’re lucky to ever find a new Audio Desk Systeme for under $3,200.  Many with very large collections can probably afford to fit this into their budgets.  For many of us, though, those costs are out of reach. Many find it a stretch even to purchase a VPI vacuum.

One interesting thought: building my own.  I am already looking at the basic parts, and it really is quite simple.  I will be covering the idea in an article in the near future.