When was the last time you cleaned the needle on your record player? If your answer is, “Hahahahahahah .. wut,” you’re not alone!
I’ve been collecting vinyl since college, which is closer to 15 years than I’d like to admit, and I don’t think I’ve more than once or twice even thought about properly cleaning my stylus, let alone giving it a try.
That’s, uh, not great, though. It turns out that stylus care is one of the easiest and most important steps to a healthy record relationship. Now that you’ve been alerted to the danger living right under your nose, take two deep breaths and follow this simple guide toward a brighter vinyl future.
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What is a turntable stylus?
Did you know your record player doesn’t run on magic? That little tonearm on your turntable is some kind of mechanical wonder. The whole system contains magnets, coils, a cantilever, and a cartridge, wherein lives this tiny, diamond-tipped stylus (AKA needle) that runs across the face of your vinyl record, reading the vibrations and turning them into electrical signals. While there have been leaps and bounds of technological advancement between your Technics and the humble phonograph, it’s the same process by which phonographs worked way back in 1877. Wild.
What happens if I don’t clean it?
Your stylus is on the front line of your record-listening experience. If things break down here, it will affect every element of the process from there on out. It’s the most delicate part of your record player, and unfortunately, it’s the one taking a face-dive into the dirty trenches of your record: the grooves. As the records play, the stylus catches all that dust and dirt settled on your LP.
Photo by Nicole Raney
Are your re-, are your re-, are your re-, are your records skipping? Could be a dirty needle! Does it sound like a dusty vinyl mess? Maybe it is! A quick, 20-second clean of that stylus could turn your muckiest, scratchiest sounding LP into a golden chorus. (But hey, if the vinyl is actually scratched, that’s another story).
Even more importantly, a dust-laden, dirty needle dragging across your record could lead to further degradation of the vinyl itself. No one wants to ignorantly damage their precious, carefully-curated collection – not after I spent all that time searching for the original pressing of Lou Reed!
How do I clean the stylus?
The good news is, cleaning your stylus is nothing like cleaning your bathroom. It’s quick, easy, painless, and very cheap. Here are a few tried-and-true options from dutiful collectors across the Discogs Community and beyond.
Needle or stylus brush: Any time you buy a cartridge or stylus, it probably comes with a little needle or stylus brush. If you don’t have a brush handy, there are lots of them on the market, usually for $10 or less. Look online or ask your local record shop clerk. They’ve got little, round heads and short, soft bristles. Big tip: Never, ever, for any reason whatsoever, rub your needle sideways. Always brush from front to back, mimicking the movement of a record underneath. Brushing your needle side-to-side will damage the tip or break the damn thing clean off. Then you need a new stylus, and that was opposite your original goal.
Mr. Clean Magic Eraser: Before you head to the record store or search online, look underneath your kitchen sink. If you’ve got a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in your broom closet, you’ve got perfectly-good needle cleaner. Do not brush the Magic Eraser against your needle. The abrasive surface is good for getting crayons off the wall but not so good for your needle. Instead, cut a small square from the eraser, place it on your turntable just below the stylus, and gently (very gently) drop your needle on the eraser. Lift the needle back up, and you’ll find the eraser snagged some of that dust, leaving a small mark. Move the eraser a smidge and continue the process until no residue is left.
Photo courtesy of Turntable Lab
Onzow Zero Dust Stylus Cleaner: If the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser feels a little scary to you, you can invest $39 into Onzow’s ultra-soft gel product. It works pretty much the same way, in that you drop your needle gently onto the gel pad two or three times, but Onzow’s Zero Dust Stylus Cleaner has been specially formulated to be needle-friendly. You can clean the pad by running it under warm water, which means you’ll get a lot of use from the investment.
Audio Technica Cleaning Kits: A trusted name in the turntable game, Audio Technica offers a couple products to keep your stylus stylin’. There’s the AT617a Cartridge Stylus Cleaner, a polyurethane gel pad that runs about $35 and is used the same way you would use the Onzow gel pad. Make sure you don’t force the needle down or leave it on the gel pad too long, or you might pick up small gel debris. There’s also an alcohol/ethanol-based liquid cleaner that promises a “more thorough cleaning” called the AT607a. For $12, you get a 10 ml bottle with a brush head. Just be sure you brush from back to front, as with any needle brush, and do note that liquid spillage from the bottle onto the vinyl can damage the record. Audio Technica recommends removing the stylus before cleaning, just to be safe.
But for real, how often is cleaning necessary?
Well, it only takes a few seconds, so you might as well leave the cleaning tool of your choice right next to the player and do a little brush between LPs or dance with the gel pad right before you kick off a long night of spins.
If a daily clean seems unrealistic (that’s going 0 to 100 real quick), we recommend refreshing your tip at least once a week. If you treat your stylus nicely, it’ll last for 1,000 or maybe even 2,000 hours. What’s 20 seconds of your life against 2,000 hours of jams? Time and money well spent.
Article originally published by Jess Thompson in 2018. Last updated by Kat Bein.