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VRC Technical Information

To understand how the new vinyl record cleaning solution, VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel, eliminates the pops and crackles from your vinyl records (and ultimately how that saves you money) we need to understand the record itself and what happens when it is played.

The microgroove record (for that is what it was originally called when first produced in 1949) is played by placing a stylus, a highly polished and specially shaped piece of diamond mounted on the end of a fine rod called the cantilever, into the record groove. The vibrations caused by the force developed between the stylus tip and the sidewalls of the record groove travel up the cantilever into the tonearm cartridge, are turned into minute electrical impulses and then transformed into sound by the system amplifiers and speakers.

The relationship between the stylus tip and the three dimensional impressions in the record’s groove walls is therefore extremely important. To achieve maximum fidelity, the stylus must follow with extreme exactitude the variations of these impressions. Two possible barriers to maintaining the integrity of this precise relationship are (a) the stylus losing its original shape and thus no longer being able to accurately trace the microscopic impressions, and (b) foreign matter coming between the stylus tip and the minutiae of the impressions.

A stylus in a groove
Stylus in groove on a vinyl record; the recorded signal is seen as modulations on the groove walls. The radius of the tip is 25 microns (1/1000th of an inch)
A stylus in a groove under an electron microscope
At higher magnification; the stylus tip needs to remain in constant contact with the impressions on the groove walls else sound is degraded.

If there is one issue which has constantly plagued the playing of vinyl records it is unwanted noise, often referred to as pops and crackles, but also including hiss.

Two stylus shapes

Sometimes this noise is wrongly attributed to physical damage which is commonly referred to as ‘scratches’. Whilst it is true that a scratch on a vinyl record will be audible during playback, each single scratch will be heard as a “pop” just over once every second as the record rotates and the stylus meets the damage on each subsequent rotation. The rest of the audible noise, which is usually constant, is unwanted dirt, dust and other contaminants residing in the grooves. It may also be due to static electricity on the record’s surface discharging through the stylus.

It is not widely understood that poor quality sound from a vinyl record is caused by more than simply unwanted contaminants in the record groove.

To understand the issue of reduced sound quality and how to overcome it, the relationship between the playback stylus and the record itself needs to be examined.

In 1954, a comprehensive study of the new ‘microgroove’ record and the playback stylus was conducted by the hi-fi author and commentator, Harold D Weiler.

Weiler was concerned that vinyl record enthusiasts were neglecting the styluses in their phonographic playback equipment. He set about understanding and then explaining, for the benefit of users, the factors governing the ‘wear and care of records and styli’. This seminal work was published in 1954. As the vinyl records we own, play and love today are still made in the same way as they were in Weiler’s day, the findings of more than 60 years ago remain hugely important and relevant for today’s vinyl record enthusiast.

The Vinyl Record

Sound is imprinted on a vinyl record as a single, spiral V shaped groove. If this groove were to be stretched out end to end it would be about one kilometre long. The analogue signal, which is reproduced by the phono cartridge, is effectively engraved as a three-dimensional imprint on each of the opposing walls of this long, V-shaped groove. Higher pitched tones are represented as peaks closer together and the peaks of lower tones are further apart. Higher volume sees the peaks reach deeper into and across the groove. The stylus’s job is to accurately trace these peaks and troughs as it is dragged through the groove by the spinning record. In a stereo recording, one wall (by convention, the inner wall) carries the left channel signal, the outer wall the right channel. As the stylus tracks through the groove it is moved horizontally and vertically by the groove wall modulations, the tiny vibrations converted to electrical energy by tiny wire coils and magnets in the cartridge.

It is therefore of paramount importance that during playback the stylus’s contact with the groove walls be of ‘extreme exactitude’. Anything less will introduce distortion and noise to the reproduced signal.

The Stylus

The stylus is a very small artefact, its tip typically measuring about 25 µ (microns) or one thousandth of an inch in the old money. The groove opening itself measures 100µ tapering down to its base. Clearly the stylus will sit against the tapering groove slightly above the groove’s bottom.

Diagram: Stylus in groove

The groove is V-shaped because that is the shape of the original cutting head used to create the first lacquer copy from the master recording. It is important to note that the playback stylus itself is deliberately not V-shaped and whilst today there are a number of stylus tip shapes all styluses have in common a rounded end; they deliberately do not reach the bottom of the groove.

The two microscopic points where the stylus contacts each side of the groove is where we see wear of the stylus occurring. Whilst the diamond stylus is infinitely harder than the vinyl of the record, it touches the groove walls only momentarily as it passes. Yet as the stylus itself is in constant contact it must inevitably experience wear.

Two stylus shapes
Two different stylus shapes; note the space below the stylus and the groove bottom as well as the two tiny points of contact. This is where stylus wear occurs.

As the stylus is worn away the (diamond) dust created is deposited in the groove, some on the walls, the rest at the base of the groove. Weiler’s study confirmed the most abrasive dust found in a vinyl record groove is, in fact, the dust from the abrading stylus. For the benefit of the records as well as the stylus it must be removed. By removing dust we reduce friction and therefore reduce wear, to both stylus and record. The stylus lasts longer, money is saved and records are protected.

Stylus Wear and What It Does to Records

A brand new stylus will sit in the groove touching each wall at opposing microscopic points. The effective pressure at these two points is something like 8 tons per square inch (80MPa). The stylus tip is made of diamond and is polished to an extreme degree of smoothness to eliminate friction. Even though diamond is the hardest material on the planet it still experiences wear and as we have seen the dust that is created and left behind in the groove is highly abrasive.

Highly magnified wear damage to stylus

Weiler’s work initially focussed on the stylus to alert users to the dangers of ignoring this important part of their systems. So what happens when a stylus wears and what are the impacts?

The stylus tip experiences wear at the two microscopic points at which it contacts the groove walls. Eventually the abrading action of running through the groove changes the shape of the stylus at the contact points making flat faces or ‘flats’. Once a stylus loses its rounded shape that changes the nature of the relationship between the stylus and the modulating groove walls it is attempting to track.

Continued stylus wear produces two changes in the nature of this relationship.

Stylus and worn stylus in grooveFirstly, as the flats enlarge the stylus will sit continually lower in the groove, effectively enlarging its profile and reducing its ability to track the groove modulations.

Second, the ever flattening contact points widen and so become unable to respond to the finer detail. Eventually the listener will hear audible distortion.

Three examples of stylus in groove - showing damage to recordWeiler found that by the time distortion is audible the worn stylus has been doing irreparable damage to the groove walls, the leading edge of the flats now acting as a cutting tool and shaving the finer detail from the groove modulations.

The message here for all vinyl record enthusiasts is to be sure to replace the stylus before wear is sufficiently progressed that damage has commenced!

Showing wear of stylusWeiler’s work on stylus care also revealed important information for record care. In particular, he discovered that the record itself can have an impact on the rate of wear of the stylus. This fact came to light when he investigated the nature of the material commonly found in record grooves.

Dust, Dirt and Other Contaminants

Wear in any physical encounter is a function of friction and the nature of the surfaces in contact. Smooth surfaces devoid of particulate matter will exhibit less friction than rough, dirty surfaces. In the case of the stylus / record interface, we know that a new diamond stylus demonstrates one of the smoothest surfaces on the planet. But what about the record?

Dust and dirt in record groovesThe groove walls are anything but smooth, imprinted as they are with the tiny analogue waveforms that represent the recorded sound and which the stylus must track with ‘extreme exactitude’ if the produced sound is to be a faithful representation of the original recording. Therefore, unwanted material in the form of microscopic particles as well as oils, grease and other airborne pollutants such as nicotine etc in the groove will be unhelpful as they will interfere with the stylus’s ability to follow the groove walls’ waveform. In fact, they will contribute their own ‘signal’, which are heard as pops, crackles and hiss but also by what is not heard due to the finest detail – i.e. the smallest modulations on the groove walls – being masked by coverings such as oils or fats. Any contaminant that comes between the stylus and the groove wall will degrade sound reproduction and likely also contribute to accelerated stylus wear.

Dust was mentioned among the factors contributing to excessive record and stylus wear.  Dust and grit in the record grooves were found by Weiler to be the primary cause of exceptional wear found in the tested styluses. These findings led him to do an additional series of tests to determine to what extent dirt and grit lodged in the record grooves affected record and stylus life.  Brand new records were used to create wear on one group of styluses. A second group was worn with used records. A third group of styluses were then worn with clean used records, and a fourth group with used records which had not been cleaned.

Weiler’s tests showed conclusively that both airborne dust and debris worn from the stylus tip itself are the greatest cause of excessive record and stylus wear. He demonstrated that complete removal of dust and grit from the record grooves resulted in increases of up to 60% in the useful life of both records and styluses.

VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel is specially formulated to clean vinyl records by deep cleansing the groove for particulate as well as binder material.

Firstly, VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel eliminates existing static electricity, the first most important step to removing dust. A static charge exerts an iron-like grip on dust particles, much like iron filings to a magnet. If the charge is not neutralised the particles will remain firmly ‘adhered’ to the record.

VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel neutralises static and stops it reoccurring.

Secondly, VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel is specially formulated to tackle the tricky mix of contaminants we now know are to be found in a record’s grooves, including removal of mould growth.

Chemically speaking, this is called ‘soiling’ and by definition consists of particulates (dust including stylus dust, carbon, minerals, dander, spores) of which a proportion is bound together and bound to the surface by oils, grease, resins, nicotine etc. Loose particulate soiling not bound by static electricity can be removed by vacuuming (for example, in the case of carpets) or dusting, blowing, etc. However, the remaining particulate soiling is bound to itself and to the surface by the oils, greases etc. Its removal requires the fine particles to be caused to clump together into a ‘floc’ in process known as flocculation.

VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel literally dissolves the greases and oils, lowering their viscosity and breaking their adhesion to the surface and to particulate soils. VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel then emulsifies the oils, by creating micelles which suspend the emulsified oils away from the substrate (the record) and available to be removed.

Removal is the third action as the whole solution or slurry of dissolved and suspended contaminants is sealed as a dried film. The dried film is now peeled off the record.

This method of removal is superior to vacuuming or brushing attempts at removal because all contaminants are contained in the skin, of which nothing is left behind. A mechanical means of removal must by its very nature leave traces behind, smeared across the groove walls thereby representing a barrier to proper stylus contact. Such slurry traces left on groove walls would contain fine particulate matter, including diamond dust, as a highly abrasive coating.

Contaminants

Weiler’s analysis of dust removed from stylus tips used on dirty records revealed:

  • 12% jagged silica particles
  • 35% osmium, sapphire or diamond dust
  • 40% miscellaneous particles including soot, grit and particles worn from the record groove itself, and
  • the remaining 13% consisting of flocculated fibres and lint

From this analysis, we can see that almost 60% of the extraneous material removed from the stylus tip, and consequently the record groove, is harder than the comparatively soft record material and, therefore, is capable of scarring and damaging it. This material in the record grooves also increases the amount of friction between the stylus and the record groove. Increased friction results in increase wear on both record and stylus and also increases the amount of static electricity generated. It can also increase wow and flutter.

This information is particularly important to those enthusiasts rediscovering their old record collections that have not seen the light of day for years, perhaps a decade or more. As well as the type of grit described above, there are also likely to be mould spores, which are typically measure 10µ to 30µ. With the width at the top of the record groove measuring 100µ, spores are easily accommodated. As spores need as little as 60% relative humidity for germination, long stored collections should receive a thorough cleaning before re-entering service to remove mould and fungal growth as well as the aforementioned dust and dirt.

It is not only older record collections that benefit from cleaning; new records arrive with detritus in their grooves as well as mould release, the chemical means by which records are separated from the printing plates. Early removal of these unwanted artifacts will ensure early record and stylus wear is minimised.

Wow and Flutter Increased by Dust and Dirt

The term “Wow and Flutter” refers to changes in the speed of the media during playback which is a source of distortion. This is easily demonstrated by lightly touching the turntable during playback and is the reason why leading turntable manufacturers put so much emphasis on accurate motor control. In his work assessing the benefits of VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel, Dave Askew of Media DMA noted that a clean record demonstrated less wow and flutter (irregularities in the playback speed of analogue recordings) than uncleaned records. In other words, not cleaning your records is to introduce wow and flutter during playback.

Static Electricity

A consideration of dust and dirt brings us to the topic of static electricity and its part in record and stylus wear. Most plastics are insulators and retain a static charge, the so-called Triboelectric effect. The friction created between the stylus tip and the groove accelerates the generation of static electricity. Even the friction generated by slipping the record into its jacket may induce static electricity. The static charge on a vinyl record will attract all dust particles in its immediate vicinity and bind them with a vice-like grip within the record’s grooves. Unless this charge is neutralised, it will be impossible to remove the tiny impurities which become lodged in the grooves. From the foregoing paragraphs, it is clear how closely allied are dust, grit, and static electricity in creating excessive record and stylus wear.

Record maintenance

The message from Weiler’s study is that all records benefit from cleaning, but especially older ones. Those collectors who like to pick up vinyl record gems from 2nd hand dealers should be wary and ensure their ‘new’ old purchases receive a thorough clean with VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel.

Even new records, which do not receive any form of clean after pressing, can be heard to benefit from an VRC Easy Spread n’ Peel treatment to remove residual material such as the mould release agent used to ensure the newly pressed record is easily separated from the pressing plate. Periodic cleaning is then mandated to ensure stylus dust does not accumulate, the abrasiveness of which has been shown to shorten stylus life and contribute to record wear.

Periodic cleaning, especially of favourite albums, will ensure longer life both for the tonal qualities of LPs as well as for the effective life of the stylus.

Referenced Material

Wear and Care of Records (Weiler)