The Art of Turntable and Vinyl Maintenance

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Come close, I’m going to let you into the secret for keeping your vinyl collection clean. Are you ready? Don’t let them get dirty in the first place. After building a large collection of records over many years, I have seldom needed to take any drastic action to clean a dusty or dirty album, never had to remove fingerprints, rarely had to deal with warped disks.

How do you manage that? First, store your albums vertically without over-crowding or under-crowding. That means that it should be easy to insert an album into your shelves without having to apply force, and once in place each disk should lean neither left nor right.

Next, when you want to play a disk, take it out by removing the inner sleeve from the album cover, hold it horizontally in one hand and insert the other hand into the sleeve, pressing away from the vinyl until your middle finger comes to rest under the centre hole. Pull the record out with your finger on the centre hole and the thumb supporting the edge of the disk until you can free the other hand. Now you can hold the record by pressing in on the opposite edges of the disk with the fingers of both hands. At no time should your fingers or your palm touch either surface of the disk. If you can do this in your sleep, move on, but if you can’t, go find a disk you don’t care about and practice this maneuver until you have it down pat. Pretend the vinyl surface carries a 500V charge – that should motivate you. Once you can remove a record without touching the surface, you’re half way there.

Placing it on the turntable and removing it should be easy, always using the two flat hands stance. I prefer to do this with the platter not spinning, but some keep the platter spinning at all times.

As soon as you’ve finished playing a disk you should return it to its cover to prevent dust build up. To put the disk back just do the same steps you took to remove it, but in reverse. Remember to align the open edge of the liner along the upper edge of the album cover, so you get a good airtight seal.

Never lend an LP to friends or family unless they are just as fanatical as you.

Static electricity attracts dust to the record surface so you’ll want to take measures to reduce or eliminate it. Ideally you should store your collection at a moderate humidity level of around 40%, and a constant temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius in a fairly dust free room. Use an anti static gun or an anti static brush on your disk before each play, while it is sitting on the spinning platter. That’s the only cleaning I ever do or ever need to do, and I never use any fluids on my records. Reserve the record cleaning machines and fluids for records you have bought used, or records you’ve had in your collection since before you learned that prevention works better than cure.

Cleaning a stylus is a controversial matter. Some believe the chances of damaging the cantilever outweigh the benefits of removing dust from the needle. If you have used fluids on your records, or have transferred the oils from your fingers onto the grooves by incorrect handling, then this gunk will find its way onto your stylus and now you do have a problem. The oils will trap more dirt and pretty soon you’ll have no choice. So what I would do is get a high quality stylus cleaner, and apply it very gently while the arm is locked into the armrest. You should do this only when you have a problem, and you’ll need a magnifying glass to help you make that determination. For the rare occasions I need to clean my stylus, I use an ultrasonic cleaner from Audio Technica (AT-637), no longer available.

How often do you need to change the stylus? Well there’s no simple answer. The guidance used to be every 2000 or 2500 hours of use. With a high quality setup, your cartridge carefully aligned and tracking well, much longer stylus life is now common. I’ve gone over 5,000 hours without issue. You should examine your stylus under a magnifying glass or microscope every 500 hours or so to determine when it is worn, although your ears may tell you first. Any sign of distortion or loss of detail should be investigated.

You can’t simply replace the old stylus in a moving coil cartridge – it needs to be retipped, an expensive process which involves sending it back to the manufacturer or another retipping service. Expect to pay 30%-50% of the cartridge price for such a service. Given the cost, you may prefer to switch cartridge at this point. Most moving magnet cartridges on the other hand offer easy stylus replacement. The old one just slides out and a new one can be easily inserted. In some cases you can even upgrade your cartridge by installing a stylus with a more refined profile from the original manufacturer. As always when touching a cartridge, remember these things can be very delicate so treat them with the utmost care.

The biggest problem I’ve had with my turntable (a 1980 vintage Linn Sondek LP12) is how to avoid the jarring effect of footsteps on the suspension. You get this if your floorboards transmit footfalls across the room. You can minimize the problem by carefully selecting a good location in the room, taking into account which direction the floorboards run, or possibly by careful choice of platform. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. After years of messing around, I bought a Target wall-mounted turntable support, attached it to the studs and that fixed it for good. It may be a bit ugly, but I found a solution to that too. I built a cabinet around the wall-mounted stand so cunningly designed that unless you come right up close you can’t tell the stand isn’t a part of the cabinet. There are other ways to isolate the turntable, including special stands with built in isolation, or isolation shelves like the Townsend Seismic Sink that fit between your stand and your turntable. You can also try replacement feet for your turntable – the market is overflowing with options. Some methods work well with one kind of turntable but not another, so you will need to experiment for best results. Bass sound waves can also feedback into the turntable, especially on non-suspended platters, so be careful to position your speakers well away from the turntable.

Whatever kind of stand you have it must be perfectly level and a bubble level is the only way to tell for sure. You want the long kind and you’ll need to check it front to back and side to side. Place it on the platter itself when leveling.

If your turntable has a fine adjustment for rotational speed, you can buy an inexpensive strobe to fit over the spindle, or build your own strobe here: http://www.vinylengine.com/strobe-discs.shtml. When the speed is bang on, the room light with its 50Hz frequency should cause the bars to stop rotating. Pitch accuracy is much less important to most ears than pitch stability. Unless there is something actually wrong with your turntable, pitch stability is a feature of design and build quality. Expect best results with very heavy platters, tight machine tolerances and high quality bearings.

If you have a belt drive turntable, you may need to replace the belt once every few years. It’s best to get advice from the manufacturer on this. If you see the belt slipping lower than usual on its pully or on the platter, or you hear it slip when you power up the motor, these are signs the belt has stretched or dried out and it’s time to replace it. For those of you with idler wheel drives, these can wear unevenly over time and will become noisy or lose their pitch stability. You can replace them inexpensively if parts are still available, or you can have them rebuilt. Direct drive turntables should run maintenance free. Your instruction manual will indicate how and when to oil the bearings.

A turntable must not only be set up correctly when you buy it, but may need regular tune ups to keep it well tuned. This applies far more to suspended turntables like my Linn LP12 than for a non suspended turntable like a Rega. Should you do it yourself? Almost certainly not. In most cases getting the suspension level and free floating requires considerable attention to detail, careful dressing of the leads being one particular pitfall, and is as much an art as a science. Fortunately turntable design has advanced over time so as to make these adjustments easier and less frequently required than in the past. Once again you should seek advice from the manufacturer.

Now stop obsessing and enjoy your collection!

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