I’m betting that when you first got your first record player, you were nervous about putting the needle on and off the player. You were afraid that wrongful handling might scratch your records. Now, it’s a couple of months down the line, and you’re a pro at putting that needle on, but, for some reason, you’re experience popping noises and sound distortion. You know you didn’t scratch your records, and you’ve been handling them correctly the whole time. So what is it?
If your record is making popping or hissing sounds, you are most likely experiencing surface noise. Surface noise happens when either a record or your cartridge stylus is dirty. If you want to reduce the wear that a record takes over time, it is necessary to keep both the records and the stylus needle clean.
Keeping Your Records Clean
Even if you have been handling your records correctly, and by that I mean only allowing your hands to touch the hole in the center and the outermost edge, it’s still possible for them to have oils and dust on them. Records bought second-hand have probably been taken out of their envelope many times while they were on the shelf. Records can also collect dust from merely sitting three days on your player without cover. Cleaning your records when they are dusty is one of the best ways to protect the longevity of your stylus. Cleaning your records will also protect your records because playing a record with a gunky stylus can cause permanent damage to the record.
There are a variety of record cleaners on the market. Most work with a spray that you then wipe on and off with a cloth. Some include brushes to work gently into the grooves or the vinyl. While distilled water will work to help take care of the dust, for sticky or oily records, you will want to use record cleaning fluids.
Record Cleaning Solution with Anti-static Vinyl Cloth is an affordable, bare-bones cleaner that offers a large quantity of cleaning solution for the price, and has great reviews.
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Cleaning Your Stylus
You want as few things as possible to make contact with the actual stylus needle. The more you touch it with your fingers, the more oils it will collect. Other materials not intended for cleaning the stylus may cause it to degenerate more quickly. This is particularly the case of abrasive textures which may wear down the needle’s point.
Begin by making sure to blow away any dirt that is not entirely adhered to the needle. Using compressed air to blow away this excess with keep physical contact with the needle to a minimum. Compressed air is also a good measure to use when dusting the vinyls themselves, as well as the record player’s hard to reach spots. Something like Dust-Off 10 oz Compressed Gas Duster should do the trick nicely.
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Some record player models come with stylus brushes. A brush is preferred to something like a paper towel or a cotton ball because a brush will not lose its fibers on a dirty stylus.
At this point, you should be able to see the gunk stuck to the needle and figure out your next step. If the mess is still thick, you will want to use your same record cleaning solution to dissolve the dirt and oils that are attached to the stylus.
This means wetting your stylus with the cleaner. You should do this in a localized spray so that you do not spray cleaner all over your machine, or you can use your soft rage to transfer the cleaner onto the needle. Give the cleaner some time to loosen and dissolve the oils, before you try to wipe the dirt away so that you are not applying too much abrasion to the needle during the cleaning process.
As a final measure, you can use a piece of a Magic Eraser.
The Magic Eraser contains no chemicals of its own. The density of its plastic material allows it to rub away the remaining dirt. You should not rub this along the point of the stylus. Anything that causes the point to wear down will mean premature needle replacement. Instead, rub a piece of the magic eraser up and down the length of the needle on all sides, until the needle is clean of dirt and oils.
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When to Replace Your Stylus
Now that you can finally see your stylus underneath all the dirt build-up, it’s a good step to evaluate when you might need to replace it. Styluses do not last forever. They take natural wear and tear just from playing records, and this wear and tear are worse when the stylus accumulates too much dirt. Examine your needle to see if it is developing flat spots which may damage your records. Listen to your records when everything is clean and see if you can still hear surface noise. If this is the case, then you need a change in stylus. Continuing to use the same, worn stylus could permanently damage the grooves in your records.
The more often you clean your stylus and records, the fewer problems you will have with them, and the better sound quality they will give you. Keep your records in their sleeves to save them from dust. Clean them immediately when you receive them from second-hand sources. And if you listen to your records frequently, it’s a good measure to clean your stylus once a week, to keep it pristine for as long as possible.