|The Vinyl Word
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LAST Record Care Products
by Greg Weaver
With Mobile Fidelity announcing the second cessation of its record production some time ago and the very recent (and hopefully only temporary) termination of the vinyl reissues at DCC, this could easily be seen as the beginning of the second age of the demise of the vinyl record. Im not quite that pessimistic, but some could view it that way, so I must acknowledge that I can see why -- digital is audios future. It could be argued, therefore, that it is now even more important for the analog lover to do all that can be done to preserve and protect records and playback equipment than ever before.
To that end, there is a company in Livermore, California that has had this very thought in mind since its inception back at the end of the 70s. The LAST Factory was established under the premise that the useful lifetime of recorded media could be substantially extended, and consequently the Liquid Archival Sound Treatment family of record-care products was born.
I wasnt able to gather too much information on the current chemistry behind the products, but like other record-care products of that era, including Nitty Grittys First, several of the LAST products used CFCs (specifically Freon). By 1993, LAST had eliminated all CFCs from the line entirely. About that same time, they discontinued a numbering system that had gone along with each product name, which sort of assigned an order to the products use. Im glad because their numbering scheme started with record cleaners and ascended through the stylus treatment -- backwards to my way of thinking. Since a dirty, poorly maintained and worn stylus will do tremendous damage as it courses a record, regardless of how well the record may be preserved, lets start with these products.
LAST Stylus Cleaner
If you truly wish to preserve your precious records, it only makes sense to do as little damage as possible by making sure the stylus is free of dust or any baked-on debris. Typically a stylus tracks at a force somewhere in the vicinity of 2 grams, and on the micro scale of relationships this can translate into something like 14 to 40 tons of pressure on the grooves. The friction of the stylus traveling the groove at these pressures creates heat, about 315 degrees Fahrenheit worth -- the melting point of vinyl -- causing the short but instantaneous liquefaction of the groove wall. If there is any form of dust or impurity on the tiny diamond sliver as it takes its journey through the records aural valley, those impurities can be permanently bonded to the groove wall or baked onto the stylus itself. It must now be obvious that keeping the stylus clean and reducing friction are good things.
LAST Stylus Cleaner comes in a .25-fluid-ounce bottle with a tall cap that has its own applicator brush attached, very much resembling a nail-polish bottle. It also comes supplied with a short, stiff bristle brush similar to the one supplied with the old DiscWasher SC-2 stylus cleaner. The directions tell you to simply unscrew the cap and, using the attached long brush, lightly apply the Cleaner to your needle with a gentle back-to-front motion.
One big point they dont bother to mention that I feel is very important: be sure to dab away all the excess fluid from the brush by wiping it repeatedly along the inside neck of the bottle before putting it anywhere near your stylus. When applying ANY liquid to your delicate stylus, be very sure to get ALL the excess fluid off the chosen applicator brush. Excessive fluid introduced to or around your stylus can be drawn up the cantilever, where it will continue to reside. This excessive moisture will also draw and hold more dirt and impurities in that delicate motor structure, causing an accelerated deterioration of the damping materials and appreciably shortened cartridge life. Many cartridge manufacturers have spoken out against the use of any such fluids for just that reason. One could wonder if this MIGHT be some stance taken to allow our cartridges to wear out faster, forcing us to have to replace them more often. Gee, does that sound too cynical?
Regardless, I have come to prefer to apply ANY fluids with a short, stiff bristle brush like the second one supplied with the Cleaner. Such a brush makes it much easier to manage the volume of fluid that will get to touch the stylus, greatly reducing the threat of damaging the cartridge through over application. I suggest using the attached applicator brush to apply only one or maybe two drops of the cleaner to the round pad of bristles. Place the brush under the stylus, pad up, to the rear of the cartridge. Lightly lift the brush up until the bristles surround the stylus and just begin to lift the cantilever, then slowly drag the brush forward across the stylus until it clears from the front. Repeat as necessary until clean.
Though you might be tempted to apply the cleaner before or after every play, I can tell you that the only people I have ever known to experience any problems with such substances were people who chose to do so. I have never experienced any detrimental effects, but then again, I typically only use it once before every playing session -- or every other. Used in this manner, applied with the short, stiff bristle brush and with only occasional application, it has been able to help keep all my styli spic n span.
LAST Stylus Treatment
Though closely resembling the bottle and applicator of the Cleaner, the LAST Stylus Treatment applicator brush has considerably shorter bristles and it is fitted with a much tighter collar, ostensibly to prevent rapid evaporation, which can cost you because the bottle contains only .25 fluid ounces. Now, I must caution you yet again on its application, for the very same reasons as with the Cleaner -- the opportunity exists for too much fluid to be near the tip of the stylus and cantilever. The instructions here tell you to apply it before every play; while I know that the friction of play will erode the light coating, I urge you to be excruciatingly careful when applying this or any other fluid and to use a short, stiff bristle brush if possible.
Sonically, it imparts a new sense of clarity starting from about the lower midrange on up, giving timbre a bit more truthful balance. Detail is retrieved with better resolve and focus, as are microdynamic shadings, giving cymbals, reeds and strings a better sense of space and more articulate decay. The soundstage is treated to a more open rendering, especially at the extremes. Surface noise is reduced greatly as well -- not to the point of going unnoticed, but quite nicely decreased. For an idea of what I mean, just listen to the title track from John Klemmers Touch [MFSL 1-006] with and without the treatment. These are all very desirable attributes, but they seemed to slowly dissipate as I listened -- by about the two-thirds to three-quarter mark into any side of any record I played.
I began to wonder if this was just delusion, some heightened susceptibility to tracking geometry or erosion of the Treatment. I lifted the stylus out of the groove between tracks at about two-thirds of the way through one side of the record I was playing at the time, reapplied the fluid, and replaced the needle back in the track spacer. Good, it now sounded more like it had at the beginning. I wasnt going nuts, but the effects of this treatment must fall off fast. No wonder they want you to apply it before every play.
LAST All Purpose Cleaner
The LAST All Purpose Cleaner is supplied in a 2-fluid-ounce squeeze bottle and is said to contain enough fluid to clean over 1000 records. Included with the cleaner are several white plastic-handled applicators that use a small white velvet pad as the brush. The fluid is to be applied to the pad much as the old DiscWasher fluid was: apply three drops across its length and spread the fluid across the whole brush surface with the bottle nozzle. Place the record on a flat surface and move the moistened velvet applicator in a sweeping motion, following the record grooves, around the record at least twice. Dust and debris collect on the velvet pad, which is to be cleaned by rubbing it on the ridges on the bottle's cap.
Well folks, while this is much better than no cleaning at all, or cleaning with just a dry brush, it would seem only marginally better than using something like the DiscWasher or Stanton VC-1 DJ-Pro cleaning system, which use a brush with a much larger surface area. A quick play after cleaning with the All Purpose Cleaner did reveal a more quiet background and less surface noise, slightly better staging and a bit warmer sonority, likely due to the removal of the loose surface dirt and most of the lighter debris in the grooves. However, subsequent cleaning with a vacuum-powered cleaner and The Disc Doctors Miracle Record Cleaner (or even my home brew cleaner) proved that records could still benefit greatly by such a method of cleaning.
LAST Power Cleaner
The LAST Power Cleaner is provided in a half-ounce squeeze bottle and is applied in the same manner as the All Purpose Cleaner, via the supplied little white velvet-covered plastic handles. Apply three drops, use the bottle nozzle as a spreading squeegee, and remove excess dirt and crud with the ridges of the lid. Im pleased to be able to say that this Power Cleaner works much better than the All Purpose cleaner. I tried it on a couple of records after the All Purpose Cleaner and it never failed to dredge up a lot more dirt, crud and even some mold-release agents. This product seems to work much better than either the aforementioned DiscWasher or Stanton system. Once again, a thorough cleaning with a vacuum-powered machine proved to do a better job, but this stuff works wonders on really soiled and neglected records if one of those machines is out of your reach.
If the thought has occurred to you by now that these little applicators just might be the limitation of the system, you are not alone. For one thing, they offer very low surface area. Secondly, once they get dirty, rubbing them on the ridges of one of the caps doesnt do a heck of a lot to dislodge the dirt and clean the brush. However, a separate 10 pack of the brushes is available for $26 from dealers (like Audio Advisor) or, since many dealers are not supporting analog these days, they can be ordered directly from The LAST Factory.
The best news is that there is a way to achieve better results with this cleaner. Feeling the fluid itself was not being seen in its best light because the brushes were somewhat inadequate, I tried the Power Cleaner with my old DiscWasher brush -- with wonderful results. If you have an old brush like that lying around, give it a go.
LAST Record Preservative
Ive saved the best for LAST -- sorry, that was pitiful but it just had to be done. The Record Preservative is quite good and is said to reduce noise and distortion on new and used records, and to almost halt record wear for as many as 200 plays. Working as both a lubricant and by "filling" open cracks and holes, it claims to reduce excessive heat by almost 100 degrees, thereby lowering the destructive energy produced by the extreme pressure and friction of the stylus-groove interaction. With one major variation, it is applied in the same manner as the other two record-care products. There is an eyedropper supplied, with which you remove some of the odorless fluid (the right level is marked on the side of the dropper) from its glass 2-ounce bottle. Holding the applicator brush vertically over the open mouth of the bottle, you start to apply the fluid at the top of the brush, letting it flow down the brush, with any excess being collected by the open bottle below. It is then swirled onto the surface of a thoroughly cleaned record just as the cleaners are applied.
As to the preservation capabilities of the Record Preservative, I can only speculate as I have no microscopes to examine the grooves of my records. But sonically it seems to offer much the same type of improvement as the Stylus Treatment, but more of it. Midrange voices seem more pure and have more body; they are more truthful to the original voice and offer greater detail. Focus is a good bit sharper and with more detail uncovered, especially near the noise floor. Again, the microdynamic nature of the music is improved as are the separation and delineation of objects throughout the soundstage. Surface noise is again greatly reduced, much more so here than with the Stylus Treatment alone. This stuff is smooth!
The winning combination here is the use of a record treated with the Preservative, tracked by a stylus treated with the Treatment. The combined enhancement of the two products on the sonic performance is quite desirable. And given that they are both purported to extend the life of both stylus and record, whats not to like? The Power Cleaner would seem to be a bargain and a great cleaner for those who, for some reason, cannot use one of the many vacuum-powered cleaners available or the more costly but benchmark product, the Miracle Record Cleaner.
In an era many see as the Digital Age, it is wonderful to see such dedication to my favorite medium. That companies continue to market such affordable and effective methods to treat and preserve a medium that encapsulates the heritage of a musically rich era is to be complimented. If you love analog and havent yet tried these products, you dont know what youre missing. To put an apropos spin on Karl Maldens old American Express punch line, "Dont play vinyl with out them."
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