I buy vinyl. But, seemingly unlike a lot of people around my age or younger who do, I don't do it because vinyl is old, or more authentic, or more cool or any of that other shit. I like how it sounds. Or rather, I like how properly cared-for vinyl sounds on a good sound system. Half of the articles I have read on the "vinyl resurgence" have featured some quote from some dude with a beard, a flannel shirt and horn-rimmed glasses speaking positively of the snap, crackle and pop that emanates from the stereo when a ruined record is being played. Idiots, all. Even with that BA from Haveford or Colby or Oberlin. These are the same people who have now moved on to cassettes, which, unless you are willing to spend $700 on twenty year old used Nakamichi Dragon or something like that (it has a single well, dude - no copying!), sound like crap. I guess the argument for cassette is some sort of nostalgia for a time when discovering, purchasing and listening to music wasn't a process wholly mediated by the Internet. Of course, how do these people discover and purchase and distribute and discuss new music on cassette? WWW, LOL.
I have to admit though, even after buying vinyl sporadically through my teens and much more frequently through my twenties, that I did not take care of my records as well as I should have. I was uninformed more than lazy. And at least I had a basic brush. But there are better options.
For those of you who have money and/or need to clean records in serious bulk, a vacuum-based machine is a good investment. The best bang-for-the-buck out of the machines I have used is the VPI HW-17. At $1,300, though, well, it's $1,300. If you can afford, good for you. In use, it is much more convenient than the VPI HW-16.5, and much less noisy. I have yet to try the Okki Nokki, which, like the 16.5, costs $550 (you want the dustcover!). Just remember that overusing the vacuum will transfer a static charge back on to your records and will therefore make them magnets for even more dust. Also, remember to clean the "wrong" side of single-sided records. When you play them, any dust that is on the other side will stay on the mat just waiting for the next record to attach itself to.
As for the rest of us, the best option I have found is the Spin Clean. I finally got a chance to use mine for the first time today and I am satisfied with the results. I used distilled water. The cleaning process definitely got a lot of gunk off of the records and there was more detail in the music and less background noise. Not as little as I would have hoped, but my system is certainly not perfect. And that noise was really only annoying at the very beginning of the records I listened to; some noise on that section of the record, before the music even starts, is inevitable though.
In terms of time, it took me about two and a half hours to clean 32 records. Probably next time will be a little bit faster, but not much. The nice thing is, like most people, I keep my records in the same room as my turntable. So that two and a half hours also saw me listening to music while cleaning. I only listened to the cleaned records, of course. The only real concern I had with this machine besides how well it would clean my records is whether the labels would get wet. The answer: sorta. The drying agent in the formula keeps the liquid held into the grooves fairly well, so as the record is rotated, the water stays in the "pressed" part of the record. However, I did wash a 12" that had only around five minutes of music per side, which meant that the "pressed" portion of the record extended only halfway from the outer rim. The grooveless section of the record did not hold the water that got onto it, so some did run towards the label. Additionally, some of the records I washed were single-sided, so on the side with no grooves, water did move about in an uncontrolled fashion. The labels, however, were never soaked. A little diligence in these special situations is needed, but, ultimately, no damage will be done.
Here's where the real "anal" part comes in.
If you are going to start to clean your records, all that they come into contact with should be clean as well. Start with the needle. Get something to clean it. It's cheap. Next, worry about your slip mats. Are they dusty? Shake that shit off. Lastly, there is no point in putting clean records back in dirty inner sleeves. I got 100 of these for $40. They arrived in two days. Unlike most of the "audiophile" sleeves I have dealt with, these were perfectly sized and rigid enough to slide into outer sleeves quite easily. Whatever your cynicism towards anything labeled or branded "audiophile", it still remains true that vinyl records and dirt do not mix. It is also true that regular paper sleeves scuff records, and that most plastic sleeves are a real hassle to put back into outer sleeves, so, to me, the combination of plastic's relative softness compared to paper with paper's rigidity makes perfect sense. Make sure to recycle the replaced sleeves.
The last and perhaps most annoying aspect of this process is that I will not and you should not play any record that has not been through this process. But there is always a silver lining. Anyone who has enough records to be dissuaded by this last statement probably needs to cull their collection a little bit. What better way than to have most of your collection be off-limits to you? It will be easy to decide which are the records you want to get rid of; they are the ones you don't want to expend the effort to clean.
The real reward of finally having all my shit together, both in terms of functionality and care is that I was finally, and I can't believe I actually did it, able to allow myself to open my sealed Canadian first press copy of The Dark Side of the Moon and take a listen. It sounded amazing.
EDIT: Implicit in the above sentence but I should make it explicit... sealed records that you have just opened should be cleaned before playing as well.