Cartridge 101: How to Clean Your Record Needle

Cartridge 101: How to Clean Your Record Needle

Now that you’ve become a turntable owner and your record collection is growing, you need to learn how to clean your record needle if you want the sound quality of your listening experience to be tip-top.

The more you use your record player, the more you will be exposing the records in your collection to the environment, and those tiny record grooves are going to start to collect dust, dirt, and perhaps even a few fingerprints. This grime and gunk that builds up will manifest itself in your HiFi system as noise – those “clicks and pops” that you keep hearing about when reading about playing records.

A dirty stylus will only make this worse, so we’re going to arm you with some cleaning products to help you have clean vinyl records and the stylus that is at the end of your cartridge. Part of being an audiophile is deciding how much you want to get involved with the process. Having records free of surface noise is a multi-part solution, keeping your records clean, keeping them stored in an anti-static environment, and keeping the stylus tip clean and free of the debris accumulating from the physical act of playing records.

Vinyl playback can be noise-free!

Most cartridge manufacturers claim about 2000 – 3000 hours of use before a stylus is worn enough to require replacement, but dirty records and lack of stylus cleaning can cut this dramatically. So, here’s to keeping things clean and tidy.

Start With Your Dusty Groove

Perhaps the biggest part of learning how to clean your record needle starts with removing as much dust from your record playing environment as possible. Cute as all those Facebook pictures are of cats sitting on turntable dust covers – this is the worst thing you can do. Dust is the enemy of all things electronic and records in particular. Not to mention, your cat might see the tonearm and that shiny needle tip as a toy. Nothing good can come of this. If you have a cat or a dog large enough to access the turntable needle with a nose, minimize this exposure. Keep your dust cover down at all times. If you can, keep your pet out of the room that the turntable resides.

We’ll have a detailed article about record cleaning for you soon, but for now – even if you aren’t ready to invest in a full-blown record cleaning device just yet. Just getting your hands on a record brush is a good thing and can be an integral part of your cleaning kit later. Even using the most simple record brush has a couple of different options, and it’s all about the bristles. Some insist that softer is better, while others claim somewhat stiff bristles (carbon fiber bristles are common) to be the ultimate solution. Pro-Ject offers an excellent carbon fiber vinyl brush at a modest cost.

The best way to use one of these brushes is to have your record spinning on the turntable platter. Apply it to the grooves gently, sweeping in line with the record’s center. Quick tip – if you cause the record to slow down or stop, you’re applying too much pressure. Twist the brush upwards and off the record surface, hopefully taking surface dust with it. Another plus for the carbon fiber bristles is that they have a natural anti-static effect.

As time and budget permits, consider replacing those paper sleeves. Your records usually come in with anti-static, audiophile-grade record sleeves. These are available at your favorite record stores and online vendors. This minimizes the static that results from taking records in and out of their sleeves. It also promotes longer record life. The smooth surface of an audiophile-grade sleeve will also eliminate slight scuffs that accumulate, moving the delicate record surface back and forth against paper sleeves. This goes a long way to minimize surface noise on your records, and the cleaner you keep your records, the less stylus cleaning you will have to do.

Keeping the Stylus Tip Clean

Sumiko RS 78 - 78rpm Stylus for Rainier, Olympia, Moonstone

While the term “record needle” is overused, we are referring to the tiny chip of diamond, known as the “stylus,” that is at the end of the cantilever, sticking out of your phono cartridge. This little jewel is the most delicate part of your music system and should be treated with extreme care. It takes precious little force to destroy the stylus assembly on your cartridge.

If you’re new to vinyl, starting with a cartridge that offers a user-replaceable stylus is an excellent way to go. It happens to the best of us (the horror stories abound) so look at this as almost a rite of passage to vinyl playback. Sumiko’s Oyster line of cartridges all offer replacement styli that anyone can replace.

As the stylus glides through the record groove, it picks up dust and dirt. Either from the record itself or airborne dirt. Remember, that stylus tip is not much bigger in diameter than a few human hairs, so it’s easy to attract dirt. The more records you play, the more dirt builds up on the stylus. If you’ve ever seen a big dirtball on your stylus tip (usually accompanied by distorted sound during playback), this is the most extreme example of this effect. If this happens repeatedly, your records do need cleaning, and you need to rethink the cat situation.

Proceed With Care

We can’t stress enough how delicate the cartridge/cantilever/stylus assembly is – it takes precious little force to damage it, and once this happens, the cartridge becomes unplayable at worst, to highly distorted at best. A bent cantilever can do significant damage to your records, too, carving them up like a knife. And once they are damaged, they will never sound right again, so with the cost of records today; a little maintenance goes a long way.

Keeping the stylus clean will require a stylus cleaning brush. The cleaner you keep your records, and the more often you clean the stylus, the less likely you will have to venture into the world of liquid cleaners. Just as a basic record brush is a great first line of defense there, so is a stylus brush. Again, Pro-Ject has a great solution for you.

How to NOT Clean Your Record Needle

Though it may seem obvious, you have to avoid a couple of things if you don’t want to damage the stylus. First – never use any kind of compressed air, even from a small can, like the type you see at Costco or a hardware store. While these are great for removing a little surface dust from your record albums or blowing dust out of your computer – the high velocity of the air coming out of a can will instantly destroy that stylus.

Next, when you use the stylus brush, the only way to use it is to gently go from the back of the cartridge body to the front, just dragging it across the stylus enough for contact. Never, ever go front to back or side to side. Moving in this direction will tear the stylus/cantilever assembly from the cartridge body.

Most cartridge manufacturers have a way of binding that tiny diamond chip that is your stylus to the cantilever. It is nearly always some kind of adhesive, so if you consider a fluid-based stylus cleaner along with your stylus brush, make sure it is approved by the cartridge maker. Some cleaning products can dissolve the glue holding the stylus in place over time, again rendering your record player out of service.

Using a liquid-based stylus cleaner is much like using a fluid-based record cleaner; this is a more advanced solution – but sometimes if dirt has accumulated on your stylus, it’s the only way to get it clean again. As you would with a dry stylus brush, always move from back to front. Most stylus cleaners require only a drop of cleaning fluid on the brush, with one or two passes across the stylus to have you good as new again.

The journey of how to clean your record needle has sent many audiophiles to experiment. Some swear by the Magic Eraser and a few other products that allow you to minimize brush use. This is a more expensive solution, but in light of what you might save not ruining a stylus assembly isn’t the worst idea. These work by cueing your stylus gently onto the cleaning pad, then straight back up, lifting the debris away. This solution is better for daily record play – to keep a brand new stylus clean in an ongoing matter. A stylus with caked-on debris does not always respond to the Magic Eraser clean and will have to be replaced regularly to ensure a clean surface contacting the stylus.

Staying Noise-Free

Like any pursuit, the more you get into it, the more you have to get into it. Forget what you’ve read about playing records and having that “vintage sound of clicks and pops.” Learning how to clean your record needle allows you to have the best of both worlds – the warmth of analog playback and the lack of noise that you thought you needed digital to achieve.

Here’s to a noise-free vinyl experience!

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