- Properly caring for vinyl records – how to handle your records
- Inner sleeves – which are best?
- Protective outer plastic sleeves for your records
- The hardware is important, too!
Vinyl is now more popular than it’s been for 30 years, with lots of people (re)discovering its charms. But handling and caring for vinyl records properly is a skill that’s fallen out of use. It’s not always been passed down the generations, in the same way that instructions on how to tie shoelaces are! In this article you’ll learn what you need to know to ensure your precious record collection doesn’t exhibit all the snaps, crackles and pops of a popular breakfast cereal.
Of course, handling your records properly is only part of the equation, as you also need to keep them clean. How to clean vinyl records is a topic in itself, which is why I created a separate article about it. Ditto how to store your vinyl records. See the links for more detailed information on those topics.
Right, let’s look at how to handle your vinyl records!
Properly caring for vinyl records – how to handle your records
Playing vinyl records is supposed to be a haptic experience: taking them out of their sleeves, placing them on the turntable, lowering the stylus and finally, sitting back to enjoy the music. At least, until it’s time to get up to change the side over!
Follow these tips to ensure your vinyl records still look and sound fantastic in decades to come, meaning you gain a lifetime’s worth of listening pleasure from them.
Don’t touch the playing surfaces!
Always hold your records by placing your fingers on the labels and the record’s outer edges. By outer edges, I mean the actual edges; not just the outer part of the playing surface, in the manner of someone gingerly picking up a soiled nappy. And whatever you do, don’t just reach in and grab them out of their sleeves!
In the photo below, I’m holding the underside of the record’s label with my fingers (you can just about see them through the centre hole!), with the edge of the record lightly resting on the base of my thumb, and being supported by my thumb.
No matter how clean your hands are – even if you haven’t just been handling soiled nappies! – your skin is constantly producing oils and sweat. Touching the playing area of your vinyl records means that the oils, sweat and dirt on your fingertips transfer to the playing surface. These oils and sweat then attract dust, which sticks, affecting sound quality. There is also the risk that your fingernails will scratch the record, which we definitely don’t want! No wonder most consumers switched to CDs in the 1980s and 1990s.
So hold your records by the labels and outer edges only! When I see someone pull a record out of its sleeve, with their hands on the surface, a part of me dies inside. I would no more do that than I’d pick up a child by its neck!
DJs beg to differ: DJs have been playing two records on twin turntables since the 1940s, switching between them, and later mixing and beatmatching them. Whole music scenes, including the ones I love the most, are based entirely on this principle. The records are DJs’ tools to keep the dancefloor moving. By necessity, they get roughly handled in use, being exposed to the risk of drink spillages and who knows what else, as well as being carried around in rucksacks and subjected to knocks.
Although thorough cleaning can help remove fingerprints, records that have been mixed almost always get scratched. Buying second-hand dance records is a nightmare! (I’m probably the only person in the world who loves dance music, but also loves his records so much that I’d never even dream of mixing with them!) Thank goodness for digital DJing!
Put them back in their sleeves gently
After you’ve played your record, gently guide it back into its sleeve. Don’t drop it in, as this wears out the bottom of the sleeve. More about this further below.
Inner sleeves – which are best?
Inner sleeves protect the record from slipping around inside the sleeve. (What we call a sleeve in the UK is called a jacket in the USA.) There are different types, but which is best?
Paper inner sleeves
Most new records include paper inner sleeves. These can be plain white (or black) paper, but are sometimes printed in colour with a design, often including lyrics. Although paper inner sleeves are certainly better than nothing, they’re not ideal, as they can scratch your records as you take them out and put them back in.
Static can also build up, meaning the record sticks to the paper, making it hard to remove, which in turn increases the risk of the paper scratching it as you do so.
Plus: over time, tiny bits of paper dust break off, which can abrade the record.
And as if all that wasn’t enough – another problem with paper inner sleeves is that they can easily become damaged if you don’t insert the record gently enough. The paper used for printed inner sleeves in particular isn’t always particularly robust, meaning the area where the bottom of the record sits becomes thinner and eventually tears. Although standard paper inner sleeves are easily replaceable, your printed inner sleeves are not. Once they’re damaged, that’s it.
For records with printed inner sleeves, you may therefore want to consider using additional, non-printed inner sleeves to hold the actual record, with the original printed inner sleeve then just serving as an insert.
The same problem occurs with the many 12″ singles from the 1980s and 1990s that were released in a printed paper sleeve, with no spine and no inner sleeve. Major labels and independent dance music labels were the main culprits here. This seems to be more of a British thing, as most, if not all, of my imports from mainland Europe or the USA have a proper spined sleeve and inner sleeve.
You could store such records in an inner sleeve, inserted into a protective plastic sleeve (see further below), along with the original sleeve. You’d then be protecting the bottom of the original sleeves from tearing.
Polypropylene inner sleeves
Polypropylene antistatic inner sleeves are much better for your records! They were commonly used as standard in the USA – at least they were back in the day when I was buying loads of records. But because they’re thin and floppy, they can also be fiddly to get in and out of the sleeve, as the corners tend to fold over or become scrunched up.
Poly-lined inner sleeves – the best of both worlds
The clue’s in the name. These are paper inner sleeves but with a polypropylene lining. The Rolls Royce of inner sleeves, which is why very few new records come with them as standard. They bring the relative rigidity of paper sleeves, without allowing static to build up or your records to get scratched as you insert and remove them.
If you want to care for your vinyl records as well as possible, so you can be enjoying them in many years to come, consider investing in a load of these. You’ll be doing your records a favour!
Protective outer plastic sleeves for your records
We’ve looked at the different types of inner sleeves for protecting your records.
Consider also getting some protective outer sleeves. These are transparent sleeves, made from a plastic material, which slip over outside of the record sleeve. They protect the original sleeves from scuff marks resulting from them being pressed up against each other on your shelf, as well as from any tea spillages etc (aargh!).
But which type of plastic sleeve is the best?
PVC protective sleeves
Back in the days when records were just the normal way of listening to music, even for casual listeners, many record shops sold ‘PVC protective sleeves’. You asked for 20 plastic sleeves, or however many, and that’s what you got. That’s also what the vast majority of my records are protected by.
However, I’ve noticed a trend away from those to polypropylene sleeves of the type that many record shops, and dealers at record fairs, prefer to use. I always thought they used these for cost reasons (‘cheap polythene sleeves’), but it turns out that PVC sleeves contain softeners and acid that can affect the record sleeves they’re supposed to be protecting.
These additives are especially unkind to photocopied sleeves and sleeves printed on laser printers, and I can confirm this at first hand.
I’ve got quite a few records that contain photocopied inserts. Some are bootlegs, with a photocopied label stuck to a plain sleeve. Others are promotional copies of dance 12″ singles, with a photocopied ‘one sheet’ (a piece of paper containing the tracklisting, remix details, background info about the release and artist, along with general hype). Others are picture discs which came with photocopied info sheets.
Some of these date back to the 1980s, and over the course of the years I’d noticed that some of these photocopied inserts were actually stuck to the inside of the PVC protective sleeve! After carefully unsticking them, I could see that the print had been lifted from the photocopied inserts, and transferred to the inside of the PVC sleeve. Now I know why!
I’d also noticed something similar with a title I bought new in 1990. There was a standard 12″ and a remix 12″, and I have both. But the very vivid purple print from the sleeve of one of them has changed colour over the years, with the white text also taking on a purple hue. I’m guessing this is for the same reason.
No doubt that explains why it seems more difficult to buy PVC protective sleeves these days!
If you decide you’d prefer PVC sleeves over polypropylene ones, see if you can find out what the spine area is like. Some have a protruding seam which, while providing strength, can make it harder to read the text on your record sleeves’ spines.
Polypropylene sleeves seem easier to come by these days.
Compared to PVC sleeves, they’re not quite as transparent, and aren’t as stiff.
And as polypropylene sleeves do not contain softeners and acids, they’re also kinder to your record sleeves – and photocopied inserts don’t stick to them!
But because they’re not as transparent as PVC sleeves, this means they have a slight milky tinge. However, this shouldn’t affect you being able to read the text on the sleeve inside. And I’d rather a slight milky tinge and optimum protection of my precious records than 100% transparency and the risk that the chemicals in PVC sleeves interact with the inks and dyes in the sleeves and inserts in ways that they shouldn’t!
The hardware is important, too!
Taking proper care of your records is extremely important if you don’t want to ruin them. But you should also pay attention to what hardware you use. Take proper care that too, and use it properly.
Starting with the most important aspect:
Get a good quality record player
No matter how fastidiously you handle, clean and store your records, a cheap, nasty record player will undo all your good work. Just as vinyl has become more popular again, so have record players (which is obvious, when you think about it!). These are available from all sorts of places, online and offline, including supermarkets and other outlets not traditionally associated with high quality audio equipment.
Many of these cheap record players use sapphire styli (‘styluses’, also colloquially called needles), instead of the usual diamond ones.
Using a cheap stylus on your precious records would be like dragging a blunted knitting needle along the grooves. Don’t do it.
It really is worth getting the best record player you can afford. Take time to find out about different manufacturers and models, reading tech specs and reviews. Find out which models would be good for your needs, and research those some more. Don’t just rely on what a salesperson in a shop (who may be on commission) is trying to sell you!
Use the cueing lever
Don’t just pick up the tonearm and plonk the stylus down onto the record. Use the record player’s cueing arm – that’s what it’s there for. This ensures that the stylus is lowered onto the record gently and evenly, and is lifted up in the same way when you’ve finished.
Keep the stylus clean
Assuming you’ve got a decent quality deck, the next point is to take care of the stylus.
At a minimum, use a stylus brush to keep your stylus clean. Gently brush from back to front, to keep your stylus free of any cruft it gathers from your records. Aim to do this at the beginning of each listening session, and repeat if you notice it’s picked up dust.
(You’ll need to switch the sound off when you do this, otherwise you’ll get an amplified unpleasant sound!)
Consider buying a stylus cleaning kit, including a stylus brush and stylus cleaning fluid.
Replace the stylus when it’s worn
It’s also important to replace the stylus when it’s worn.
How do you know when it’s worn? After every 1000 hours of playing time is a good rough guide, but it depends how often you clean the stylus and the condition of your records.
If you notice that sound quality drops, or records that used to play OK begin to skip, then it‘s time to get a new stylus!
Keep the turntable clean
As well as cleaning your records and the stylus, occasionally clean the turntable with a microfibre cloth. And keep the lid shut when you’re playing records, and when the record player is not in use.
By following these easy tips, you’ll be caring for your vinyl records properly and ensuring they still sound as they should do for many years to come!
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