Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions • Record-Cleaning Products

by Tim Aucremann | August 1, 2011

www.theaudiobeat.com

Just look at that dust hanging from the underside of your cartridge like baby opossums going for a ride. A groove-riding stylus generates enough static electricity to attract all manner of airborne crud. Like a death-star tractor beam, a record will haul in a cat hair from five yards out -- I’ve seen it happen. Tiny hygroscopic paper particles born of ancient record sleeves hunker deep in the rill, offering an ideal substrate for Crichtonian bio-germination. Nasty stuff.

Needless to say, a record is a dirt magnet. The record can’t help it -- attracting dirt is part of its DNA. Dibasic lead stearate or cadmium or other esters of stearic acid make up as much as 2 percent of the vinyl compound. These additives provide thermal buffering for the vinyl during pressing, aid the platter’s release from the mold and prevent oxidation on the newly minted record. Function served, mold-release agents turn into foreign substances between stylus and groove, where they remain and attract dirt. Chemical analyses of 50-year-old used records reveals mold-release agent still in the groove.

Playing dirty records not only generates audible clicks and pops, it wreaks physical havoc. When a stylus exerting 80 pounds of pressure per square inch smacks head on into a family of 10-micron-sized rocks sailing along at one knot, the impact can deform the groove wall or, thanks to heat generated by the forces in play, fuse those rocks to the vinyl itself. Grime, sneezes, smoke, food, and fingerprints manifest a conspiracy of skips, pops, and clicks.

If you want to be happy in life, clean your records.

A complete solution

A proven approach to record cleaning uses fluids to loosen the grip of foreign substances on the vinyl. There are three key steps: solubilize the dirt, suspend it in fluid, then remove all the dirty fluid from the record. The effectiveness and safety of your cleaning effort depends on which fluids you choose, your application technique, and the thoroughness of removal.

Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions (AIVS) offers a complete line of record-cleaning fluids. That may sound like a marketing pitch, but it’s my own assessment drawn from using AIVS products over the past five months to clean records in all manner of condition. From safety and peace-of-mind perspectives, I've always found appeal in using products from a single manufacturer. AIVS formulates and tests its fluids to work together. Exercising a modicum of care, I had confidence there was not going to be some less-than-benign chemical interaction that might harm the vinyl substrate because I chose incompatible products.

A fellow named Paul Frumkin founded AIVS. He worked with a chemist who understood a record’s chemical makeup, and he offered trials of his cleaning fluids to online end users to gain their input. However, Frumkin’s law practice meant his days held too few hours for the growing venture, and in 2006 he sold Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions to Jim Pendleton, a former industrial engineer with the Brown Shoe Company in St. Louis. Drawing on his manufacturing background, Jim studied the basic techniques needed to clean any material and then set out to broaden and improve the AIVS product line.

As an audiophile himself, Jim knew his audience would prove as important as his product. He realized early on that a vinyl-playing customer often took a "do it my way" approach to record care. "The typical consumer", Jim confided, "will be more likely to end up playing clean records if he can get them clean in a way that is personally the least painful for him."

Frumkin’s offering was a fixed-sequence process with three phases of fluid application that could easily take twenty minutes or longer per record side. Retaining the original system of Enzymatic Formula, Super Cleaner, and Ultra-Pure Water rinse ($79 for a kit of three 32-ounce bottles), Pendleton introduced three new fluids aimed at giving the vinylist greater flexibility and choice. "Our goal is always to try and find a way to provide what the consumer wants rather than trying to shove down their throats what we ordain for them."

Jim first introduced the Premium Archivist Formula ($37 per 32-ounce bottle) as a substitute for the original Super Cleaner, which contained a small amount of isopropanol. Jim designed the Premium Archivist fluid to clean alcohol-intolerant shellac records, but it soon found appeal with folks who preferred an alcohol-free cleaner for all their records.

In 2007, AIVS released the Premium One-Step Formula No.6 ($29 per 32-ounce bottle). Not meant for super grungy records and not as chemically complex as the other formulas, One-Step No.6 delivered the time savings of a rinseless single-pass process for lighter-duty maintenance cleaning.

So named because it was the fifteenth in-house fluid formulation, Premium Record Cleaner Formula No.15 ($45 per 32-ounce bottle) came to market in 2008 as a first-step soak or pre-cleaner for use on heavily soiled albums. It included two different enzyme components and two plant-derived special detergents for faster cleaning action. Use of No.15 mandated subsequent flushing with another fluid. Jim was aiming for product flexibility, and AIVS users found it with No.15. Not only did it do a job on the worst kind of dirt and grime when used prior to the original three-step fluids, the AIVS-using community discovered that No.15 worked as half of an effective two-step process when followed by a rinse with Ultra-Pure Water ($20 per 32-ounce bottle) or One-Step No.6.

Since acquiring the company, Pendleton has made seventeen formulary upgrades, some announced and others slipstreamed into the lineup. One was a major improvement in water quality. AIVS generates all the water used in preparing its cleaners using a proprietary water-filtering, -purifying, and deionizing process. Recent changes proved equally significant. Jim reformulated the Enzymatic Formula, Super Cleaner, Premium Archivist and One-Step No.6 fluids to take advantage of "a new-generation cleaning enzyme compound," which he claimed "works much faster on average at dissolving contaminants than the older versions did."

While all the AIVS cleaning fluids contain synthesized cleaning enzymes, the Enzymatic Formula and the second-step formulas (Super Cleaner or Premium Archivist) target different contaminants and "are separated in terms of formulary content primarily because it is counterproductive to try and do all of the cleaning that is possibly necessary in one step." You simply cannot mount enough fluid on a record to capture in a single pass all the dirt these cleaners can solubilize, thus the need for multi-step cleaning. Thanks to adoption of faster-working enzymes, "a good, thorough three-step cleaning can now normally be accomplished in less than ten minutes on a vacuum-wand-type machine," says Jim.

Progress is born of agitation

It took me a while to gain familiarity with six clear liquids in translucent bottles with similar-looking labels and similar-sounding names. It was worth it to come to grips with the product suite because AIVS offered an incredibly broad set of weapons in the fight against dirty records.

I had the option to use a single-step (One-Step No.6), a two-step (No.15 followed by No.6 or Ultra-Pure Water rinse), three-step (Enzymatic Formula, Super Cleaner or Premium Archivist, and Ultra-Pure water), or four-step (No.15 as a pre-cleaner plus the three-step) cleaning regimen. Other combinations were possible, although sequence was important. The Enzymatic Formula should always precede the Super Cleaner or Archivist. When using a multi-step regimen, I made sure my final step was a rinse with either Ultra-Pure Water or No.6.

A "step" comprised a two-part operation of fluid application and fluid removal with my Loricraft PRC-3 machine. When it came to applying fluid on a record, I found two schools of thought: scrubbing and agitating. Scrubbing used pressure to rub a fluid into the record. Flat or rounded semi-hard rubber brushes covered with soft microfiber cloth, such as those sold by Mobile Fidelity or Disc Doctor, made for good scrubbers. Over the years, I have used these with cleaning fluids from Disc Doctor, Record Research Labs, Walker Audio and others. Rubbing such a brush on a fluid-covered record causes tiny fibers on the cloth to push into the groove to aid in physical separation of dirt from the vinyl, not unlike scrubbing a floor with a brush. Although I have not knowingly damaged any records by scrubbing, the micro-fiber pads collected dirt and required thorough rinsing. The scrubbing motion tended to slosh fluid around and off the record. I came to prefer not risking the potential damage caused by rubbing a dirt-soaked pad on a dirty record, even a wetted one. Your mileage may vary.

Light agitation is the technique I eventually adopted, and Jim Pendleton confirmed it with his own recommendation of the method. It relied more on the effectiveness of the cleaning agents than friction. However, it could take a little longer because I tended to let cleaning fluid sit longer on a record. Designed with agitation in mind, Osage Audio, another of Jim's brands, offers Listener Select brushes sized for 12", 10" or 7" records ($29 each).

Applying an AIVS fluid with light agitation was pretty much what you’d expect. I laid down a half-inch band of fluid midway between the record’s lead-in and run-out areas. Using my Loricraft cleaning machine, I followed the groove with a cleaning brush to distribute it. Dividing the record into quarters, I typically brushed each section back and forth three to five times and repeated this during the time I kept the fluid on the record. The agitating action assured fluid permeation into the groove and helped loosened dirt particles remain suspended in the cleaning agent. I always gave a final brushing just before removing the fluid with my Loricraft's vacuum.

To avoid carrying dirt from one step to the next, I used a different brush for each fluid and wrote its name on the brush. This proved far more convenient than washing the same brush between steps. After each side, I rinsed the brushes with pure water.

The Listener Select brushes proved perfect for fluid application. They did not retain contaminated fluid, they rinsed up quickly and their bristles gave just the right amount of firm flex for gentle agitation. They were a little pricier than the Mobile Fidelity rubber handles with pads, but a set of brushes should last many years, and there are no pads to replace.

AIVS instructions suggested letting the cleaners do their work for one to three minutes. Used as a pre-cleaner, I sometime let the Premium Record Cleaner Formula No.15 soak for as long as twenty minutes. In general, I found the AIVS fluids so effective that without the need for scrubbing, I was willing to be patient to give them time to work.

Cleaning was more efficient when I did not skimp on fluid. Thinly spread fluid tended to evaporate during a multi-minute cleaning, and I wasn’t hesitant to add extra drops during a step. The fluid served as the transport for dirt’s removal, so I wanted enough of it to carry all the solubilized dirt away when it came time to vacuum. The AIVS fluids demonstrated nice fluidity and disbursed well. I found leveling my cleaning machine helped maintain even coverage.

From years of record cleaning, I am convinced there is no product or process that cannot benefit from pure-water rinsing. Water dissolves more substances than any other liquid, and the AIVS Ultra-Pure Water is an excellent solvent in its own right. I tend to use a lot of purified water and liked having plenty on hand. A few years back, I purchased a five-gallon container of NERL Reagent Grade water, and I heard no difference between that water and the AIVS Ultra-Pure.

I tried cleaning a few records by hand using the AIVS three-step process and a few more with the One-Step No.6. Hand cleaning is a polite way of saying you don’t have a record vacuum. It worked fine with the Audio Intelligent products, although it was messy and the whole business used a lot of lint-free cloths to soak up spent fluid. It took longer to get a record as dry with a cloth than I could with my Loricraft PRC-3. After final cloth drying, I placed my hand-cleaned records in a small rubber-coated dish rack to air dry. If you do air dry, I recommend using a water rinse as your final step, even if you use the One-Step No.6.

Clean to daylight

House rules dictate that before any record goes onto my turntable it gets a thorough cleaning. For this review, I did not play records I did not clean for the sake of a dirty-before/clean-after comparison, the outcome of which is expected anyway. I gauged clean the old-fashioned way: I used my ears. If a cleaned record did not sound dirty, it was clean. For new records my tolerance level was around two or three soft clicks per side. For used records, my tolerance for noise tended to be a function of how much I liked the music, although for this review I tried for equity when assessing results. If a record still sounded dirty after cleaning, what I did next depended on the record. If I thought it could clean up further -- or, more likely, if I hoped it would -- then I’d clean it again. We each get to judge that point beyond which further cleaning is futile.

I cleaned over 25 new records with five different combinations of the AIVS fluids. Sometimes I used the same regimen for the entire record, sometimes one regimen for side 1 and another for side 2. Apart from concluding that any cleaning fluid was superior to water alone, my notes indicated that on records fresh out of the shrinkwrap I heard little difference in "clean sound" among the alternatives. I detected no audible difference between the Super Cleaner and the alcohol-free Archivist.

Based on time, cost-per-side, and cleaning effectiveness, a single application of the One-Step No.6 for 2-4 minutes per side did the job as well as anything else I tried. Once I got into a rhythm, it took about ten minutes to clean a new record and insert it into a fresh sleeve. Going forward I’ll be using One-Step No.6 as my front-line cleaner for new records.

As with the new records, I cleaned some used records entirely with a single process, while others had side 1 cleaned with one regimen and side 2 with another. In a few cases I recleaned a record with a different product to hear the results. As the ancients taught, you cannot clean the same record twice and there is no assurance that the two sides of a used record have equal dirt or equal use, so gauging effectiveness is rather subjective. I drew my conclusions more on broad tendencies than explicitly definitive differences heard from a single record.

Every used record I cleaned with AIVS fluids gained in luster and most were restored to a shiny, black, "like new" appearance with highly reflective dead-wax surfaces. As a sole cleaner, the One-Step was generally effective, but used records cleaned with combinations of the other fluids showed better audible results. However, two or three applications of One-Step, by way of successive "clean once then listen and repeat as necessary" worked well when I tried that approach -- especially if I followed a One-Step application with a water rinse. Nonetheless, I concluded that the One-Step No.6 was not what I’d reach for first when faced with an obviously dirty record.

I pitted the standard AIVS three-step process of Enzymatic Formula, Super Cleaner and Ultra-Pure Water rinse against the two-step No.15 and Ultra-Pure Water. Neither was definitively superior to the other, and I concluded the two-step process was the equal of three when I used the same amount of time and agitation for each. In other words, when I let the No.15 stay on one side for, say, six minutes and used the Enzymatic Formula and Super Cleaner on the other side for three minutes each, I judged the two approaches comparable. However, the two-step did save me an extra 70-second vacuuming pass. Both techniques delivered excellent results, and I’d be happy adopting either as my default approach to cleaning used records.

No fluid combination gave better results than a four-step process that used No.15 as an initial soak followed by the standard AIVS three-step process. This was no surprise; I expected more steps would produce cleaner records. The only real decision was how long to keep each fluid on the record and, of course, the four-step protocol did take longer. Adding the No.15 pre-soak, especially when I kept it on the record for more than five minutes, proved highly effective. When I chose to add a fourth step, I preferred to use the No.15 first rather than doubling up with two treatments of the Enzymatic Formula, although on several records I could not hear a clear difference between those treatments.

Cleaning-fluid cage match

I compared the Audio Intelligent fluids with Lloyd Walker’s Prelude system ($215). When I started using the four-step Prelude several years ago, I found it more effective than fluids from Disc Doctor and Record Research Labs (now under the Mobile Fidelity brand.) Since that time the latter cleaners may have changed, and I did no recent tests with them. Prior to trying the Audio Intelligent products, the Prelude process consistently delivered the best results I had heard. Would either of these record-cleaning heavyweights win by a knockout?

Cleaning with Prelude starts with an enzyme cleaner that you mix by dissolving a measured amount of powder with Walker’s Ultra Pure Laboratory Grade Water. The instructions say the mixed "concentrated active enzyme" solution is useable for up to eight hours. Wet the record with the enzyme solution, brush, and vacuum off within 15 to 60 seconds. The instructions do not indicate support for manual drying. Follow the enzyme step with an application of the Pre-Mixed Cleaning Solution, then an Ultra Pure Water rinse, then finally the High Resolution Rinse -- four steps in all. I asked Lloyd about the High Resolution Rinse and he said it consists of "ultra-pure water, a teeny bit of alcohol and 1% of a secret ingredient."

Prior to this review, I inherited a nice 16S copy of RCA LSC-2436 from a former English professor -- yep, a Layton/Mohr Shaded Dog with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicagoans in Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome. It showed a fair amount of paper dust, smudges and lack of luster but no scratches. I cleaned the record with the full Walker Prelude system and my Loricraft vacuum.

Coming out of the Prelude cleaning, the Respighi record looked brand new and I was excited to play it. I heard the broad frequency sweep of rich bass (with a wonderfully deep and plangent gong) and a delightful trumpet solo revealed nicely extended highs -- both hallmarks of many original Shaded Dogs. Alas, I heard that dreaded rice crispies of a record previously played multiple times without cleaning, as if the vinyl had pitting or still-embedded dust. With shallow hope, I cleaned it again with the full four-step Prelude process. There was maybe a tiny improvement. After a third Prelude cleaning, I gave up.

Months later, I figured there was no harm in giving AIVS a shot at resuscitating Respighi. I first did a water rinse, vacuumed with the Loricraft and played it – snap, crackle, pop just as I remembered. I then applied a generous amount of Formula No.15, which I let sit for twenty minutes, adding a few drops of fluid and agitating every few minutes. I concluded with an AIVS Pure Water rinse and vacuum.

Zut alors! The first ten minutes of Pines were almost crackle free and the remainder of the side improved by at least A+ on anyone’s grading scale. I ran through another full twenty-minute cleaning with No.15, and there was a further slight reduction in noise, but nowhere as dramatic as the first. I would not call it a miracle, but there was enough improvement from the AIVS cleaning to bring the record out of archive and onto my regular play shelf. Would a fourth cleaning with Prelude have yielded a similar improvement? I cannot say.

I used the AIVS two-, three-, and four-step regimens on other records previously cleaned with Prelude and did a few comparisons with previously uncleaned used records. Overall, based on those tests and my prior extensive use of the Prelude system, I concluded that the cleaning effectiveness of the four-step Prelude was comparable with the AIVS two- and three-step methods and a choice between them would come down to other factors, such as time and cost. A four-step AIVS process that coupled the Premium Record Cleaner Formula No.15 with the AIVS three-step system was the most effective on dirty used records. I speculated that the primary difference between that four-step AIVS process and the Prelude four-step system came from using two AIVS enzymatic cleaning steps versus a single enzymatic step with Prelude.

The AIVS three-step kit plus three Listener Select brushes is almost $50 less expensive than the Prelude system, and you get twice as much cleaning fluid from Audio Intelligent, although the Prelude kit included more water. How much flexibility you need, how much time you are willing to spend, and how much you want to pay may determine which fluids you adopt. Both systems are excellent for cleaning records. I will use up the rest of my Prelude, but when I need more cleaning fluid I’ll be ordering from AIVS.

Conclusion

I found the line of Audio Intelligent products set itself apart with its One-Step No.6 and Premium Record Cleaner Formula No.15. Nothing beat the One-Step No.6 for cost-effective cleaning of new records in a short amount time. The Premium Record Cleaner Formula No.15 followed by an Ultra-Pure Water rinse produced thoroughly clean records in just two-steps, especially when I left No.15 on a record for more than a couple minutes.

When it absolutely positively had to be clean, coupling the AIVS No.15 pre-cleaner with the AIVS three-step system proved the most effective treatment I have found to date. I have adopted the Listener Select record brushes as my tool of choice for working with the AIVS fluids.

Through innovative product development, quality improvement and a strong customer focus, Jim Pendleton has transformed a part-time business into a leading provider of record-cleaning products. Audio Intelligent Vinyl Solutions delivers a complete lineup of tested, mutually compatible record cleaners that offer broad flexibility in support of individual cleaning scenarios. Odds are the modern vinylist can find an AIVS product combination to meet virtually any need. The company ships hundreds of bottles of cleaning fluid a week. To my way of thinking, that not only counts as a testament to the acceptance of AIVS fluids as safe and effective products, it is a direct cause of the continued viability of the vinyl record.

Prices: $20-$45 per 32-ounce bottle, depending on product.

Osage Audio Products, LLC
P.O. Box 232
Hallsville, MO 65255
(573) 696-3551
www.audiointelligent.com

Associated Equipment

Analog: Teres 320 turntable with Verus rim drive, SME Vd tonearm, Transfiguration Orpheus phono cartridge, Silver Audio Silver Breeze phono cable, Audio Research Reference Phono 2 phono stage.

Digital: Ayre C5xeMP universal player.

Preamplifier: Atma-Sphere MP-1 Mk 3.1 with phono stage.

Power amplifier: Atma-Sphere MA-1 Mk 3.1 monoblocks.

Loudspeakers: Audio Physic Avanti Century, Wilson Audio Specialties Sasha W/P.

Interconnects: Shunyata Research Aeros Stratos-IC, FMS Zero.

Speaker cables: Shunyata Research Aeros Stratos-SP, FMS Zero.

Power conditioners: Shunyata Research Hydra V-Ray Version II and Hydra Model-8 Version II.

Power cords: Shunyata Research Python CX, Anaconda CX and King Cobra CX.

Accessories: Wally Malewicz Analog Shop and WallyTractor, Loricraft PRC-3 record cleaner, Walker Prelude vinyl-cleaning system, RealTraps acoustic panels, Shunyata Research Dark Field cable elevators.

www.theaudiobeat.com