Thursday, 16 May 2013

Moth Mk II Pro Record Cleaning Machine

It's a no-brainer: if you buy second-hand vinyl and want to hear it at its best, you need to clean it thoroughly before attempting to play it. As well as getting rid of a load of extraneous noise, this has the added bonus of prolonging the life of your stylus. For years I've been cleaning all my records with the aid of an ancient, non-functioning Garrard turntable, turning the platter by hand whilst working cleaning fluid into the record's grooves with a brush, followed by a rinse with de-ionised water. This has been effective, albeit labour-intensive. The hardest, and least satisfactory part of the process has been drying the records after cleaning them: a thorough going over with cotton make-up removal pads does the job but, apart from being incredibly tedious, I was always concerned that this might be pushing debris back into the grooves that I was attempting to clean.

The defunct Garrard

In January of this year I decided to bite the bullet and invest in a record cleaning machine which sucks out the gunk at the end of the cleaning process and vacuums the grooves dry. The cost of these contraptions has always been a hurdle that mentally I had to overcome, but with 4,000-plus LPs in my ever-growing collection, I finally came to realise that I needed a speedier, more effective cleaning method, particularly as I help to finance my vinyl habit by scouring charity shops and boot fairs for records to sell online, all of which need cleaning.

The Moth Mk II Pro Record Cleaning Machine is one of the more affordable machines on the market that features vacuum suction. There is a cheaper DIY kit available for those who are confident that they can build the housing from scratch, but, apart from the fact that my carpentry skills are somewhat limited, all the pictures of successfully assembled kits that I've seen look like something hastily knocked up for the purpose of burying a dearly-departed family pet. Ready assembled, the Moth comes in a black steel enclosure: not a thing of beauty, but neat, robust and reasonably discreet. More attractive than a beaten-up, plastic, wood-effect Garrard turntable and most definitely easier on the eye than some of the function-over-form DIY kits I've seen! If you have four figures or more to spend on a record cleaning machine, Keith Monks, Clearaudio and Loricraft manufacture devices that will perform the same task as the Moth, but with a degree more sophistication and automation. For £550 I got a Moth delivered to my door with fluid, a brush, Nagaoka inner sleeves and replacement vacuum tube pads. The brush provided is very poorly made. Mine fell apart after 5 minutes, leaving sharp metal edges exposed worryingly close to the surface of the record I was cleaning. I've been using the brush that came with an ancient Parastat Record Cleaning Machine (a bit of a misnomer unless you consider a wet brush to be a machine) and have found it to be highly effective. I find carbon fibre record cleaning brushes superb for a quick dry clean of records immediately prior to playing them, but a bit soft of bristle for a deep, wet clean.

Parastat Record Cleaning Machine

The Moth is a doddle to use. There is no platter, just a record label-sized platform to which the record is clamped. This prevents debris from the uncleaned side of the record contaminating the cleaned side when it is flipped over - certainly a problem that I encountered when using the Garrard.

A small amount of the provided Moth record cleaning fluid is brushed into the record grooves whilst the motor turns the record first one way, then the other - 2 to 3 rotations in each direction is sufficient to loosen most muck - then the record is flipped over and vacuumed dry from below while you clean the other side. You will find that if you use too much fluid, it may take an extra rotation or two to completely dry the record. I prefer L'Art du Son record cleaning fluid because it is enzyme-based, the Moth fluid being alcohol-based. I've no evidence for it, but my gut feeling is that alcohol might, over time, have an adverse effect on the vinyl. I have noticed though that records cleaned with the Moth fluid dry with fewer rotations as the alcohol starts to evaporate as soon as it is spread on the vinyl.

The Moth in action

One point to note with the Moth is that the record clamp needs to be secured really tightly - and I mean REALLY TIGHTLY!!! - to prevent the clamp from coming loose as a result of a combination of vibrations from the motor and the force of the brush working in the opposite direction to the rotation of the platter. A better designed clamp, one with finger grips, or a rubberised surface would make the tightening and subsequent unscrewing of the clamp so much easier. Another point to note is that the Moth is loud - head in a jet engine loud! It makes sense I suppose that what is essentially a domestic vacuum cleaner in a metal box is going to be noisy, but don't expect to be able to listen to music or watch TV while cleaning your records, or for that matter hear the doorbell when your neighbours complain. Wanting to preserve what scrap of my hearing I have retained, I have taken to wearing industrial ear defenders when I am hunched over the Moth. The first time I used it I didn't take this precaution and I lay in bed that night with my ears ringing like I'd spent the evening at a Motörhead gig. No joke!

Essential ear gear

The Moth is designed for cleaning LPs, but a kit is available on ebay that adapts it for 7" and 10" discs. The problem that the kit addresses is the lack of sufficient suction from the vacuum tube. When a 7" single is placed on the clamp spindle, there is a portion of vacuum tube left exposed which would normally be covered by an LP. This causes a drop in suction and, subsequently, less efficient drying of the vinyl. The kit also contains a selection of adaptors to protect different types of record labels from damage that could, potentially, be caused by over-tightening the record clamp. I'm sure the kit provides excellent solutions to the problems it claims to address, but being the tight arse that I am, I decided to attempt a DIY solution. I found that the handle of a 2 litre plastic milk bottle, when cut to size wraps around the vacuum tube perfectly and is made of sufficiently thin, flexible plastic to create a tight seal when the vacuum is switched on. I attempted to address the issue of potential label damage by cutting out a small, circular piece of 3mm-thick, rubberised, gasket cork to slot over the spindle between the record label and record clamp, but found that it was too thick to allow the clamp to be tightened sufficiently to secure the LP. A second attempt utilising a disc of thin plastic cut from an Indian takeaway box has been far more successful: it effectively acts as a washer between the clamp and record label, allowing both easier tightening and loosening of the clamp. It has the added bonus of being transparent, so the label can be seen during the cleaning process.

DIY Moth accessory kit

I use a syringe to accurately apply the cleaning fluid to the record, so I'm not overly concerned with covering up the whole of the label to protect it from splashes, but it would be easy enough to cut a larger protective disc if needed. I have bent up one edge of the disc to make it easier to lift off after removing the clamp: not elegant, but preferable to scratching away with a fingernail to remove the protective disc from the label. The ebay kit, incidentally, retails at £29. My kit is cheaper and comes with free cow juice and curry. One addition I have made to the Moth is to cut a piece of velvet to size and glue it to the end of the vacuum tube closest to the clamp spindle to extend the vacuum tube pads. On records that aren't completely flat (even the ones that look perfectly flat rarely are) the end of the vacuum tube can sometimes rub against the dead wax in the run-out grooves during the vacuuming process and leave light scratches which don't look great and can even create an audible tone at the end of the record. The additional piece of velvet prevents this from happening.

The label-protecting disc doing its job

Whenever I read other collectors' advice on cleaning records, they are forever talking about protecting the labels from the cleaning fluid, but nobody ever makes any mention of cleaning the labels. It stands to reason that if the vinyl is dusty, mildewed and covered in crud, then the labels will be too. What's the point in sticking a cleaned record into a pristine Nagaoka inner sleeve if the label is still grubby? I always wipe a dry cotton make-up removal pad over both labels prior to cleaning the record in order to remove any dust and debris that may be present. And I'll happily use a barely-damp cotton pad on the labels if there are any stubborn marks or signs of mildew that need to be shifted.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the Moth to anyone who buys used vinyl, but it's useful too for new records as it will remove the mold release agent often left in the grooves of newly manufactured LPs - I've noticed a significant improvement in the detail and clarity of sound from new wax that I've cleaned on the Moth. A case in point is the recent Omnivore label reissue of Jellyfish's Spilt Milk. I've been somewhat critical of the quality of this pressing in the past, but the Moth has helped to retrieve some of the detail that had been lost in whatever gunk lurks in the grooves of newly pressed vinyl. If nothing else, you want to ensure that your expensive stylus has to plough through as little crap as possible to get at the music buried in the grooves. The machine does get hot with use, but the makers claim that the benefit of the MKII Pro version of the Moth is that the cooling fan housed within it allows extended cleaning sessions without the risk of over-heating.

The finished article: not bad for a 30 year-old record!

I won't claim that cleaning my collection has become fun, but the partial automation of the process has certainly made it quicker and less tedious than before, and the results, in terms of increased clarity and depth of sound, are often spectacular. The majority of people seem happy to accept that some of their CDs stutter and skip, but those same people continue to trot out the usual hackneyed criticisms of vinyl: that it scratches easily and suffers from pops and crackle. That's like never changing the oil in your car and then criticising its reliability. If you care about it, look after it! I have albums that I bought over thirty years ago that have been played hundreds of times on equipment that doesn't come close to the quality of what I currently own, and they play now with the same warmth and clarity that they did the first time I listened to them. The Moth is giving me the chance to get that same level of playback quality from records that have been neglected by their previous owners. I wouldn't be without it!