All Schmutzed Up and I Don’t Know Why

It gets extremely cold in my apartment. Each winter, I curse and shiver and seal my windows with plastic and tape. The kitchen is coldest. I place a small electric heater on top of my refrigerator and turn it to high. I can hear the whirring sound from my living room, but it’s not loud enough to disturb my listening.

Of course, with the winter also comes dry air. Dry air is a real bitch. A few weeks back, right before Christmas, I started having big problems with static electricity. Every time I’d go to flip the side of an LP, I’d be shocked to near death. After awhile, I became afraid of reaching the end of a side. The needle would hit the run-out groove and I’d just sit there, shivering. “You flip it,” I’d say out loud. But no one would answer.


Luckily, this horrible static only lasted for a day or two. I thought the trouble was gone.

About a week ago, though, while listening to John Fahey’s Days Have Gone By, Vol.6, I thought I heard some distortion during a passage of music that had previously been exquisitely rendered. I ignored it and went to bed.

A few days later, the distortion was louder. I played Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, an album I know sounds good from beginning to end. I got halfway through “Two Weeks,” and I had to pull the needle from the record. Something was wrong. Distortion marred the jaunty keys and made the vocals nearly unlistenable. I played the Paper Hats’ Desert Canyon, an album loaded with detailed strumming and finger-picking and big, bold images that plant themselves firmly in your listening room, sure to impress any visitor. It sounded like shit. I played Low’s Secret Name, produced by Steve Albini and infused with space and power and delicacy. I could have cried.

My Rega was sick.

Could it be that the ‘table needed to be leveled? Could be. My entire apartment seemingly shifts three or four inches this way and that every night. Changes in weather send doorways, floorboards, and window frames screaming and cowering in cramped pain. Some mornings, I wake up and feel like I’m on a boat. I can barely walk to the bathroom without falling to one side of my slanted and enchanted apartment. So, I checked the level. It was fine, but I messed with it anyway. I ripped a Stereophile subscription card from a nearby issue, cut an inch-wide strip, and folded it in half two times. I stuck this beneath one of my Rega’s three rubber feet and said a little prayer.

Now the ‘table was level, but it still sounded like shit.

Could it be that the cartridge alignment was off? I dug out my Rega-supplied protractor and took a look. Seemed perfect to me. I didn’t mess with it. Could it be that the tracking force was wrong? The bias adjustment gone berserk? My handy-dandy Rega tip sheet tells me that all Rega cartridges track at 1.75g of tracking force. Well, that’s where my Elys was set, but I messed with it anyway. I gently pulled the bias slider until it was fully extended, setting the bias at zero. I carefully turned the tracking force control until it reached zero, too. I then began futzing with the counterweight. Screwing it towards the cartridge drops the tonearm down; screwing it away from the cartridge lifts the tonearm up. You’re supposed to do this until you get the shaft of the stylus to float just 1mm clear of an LP surface. Good luck with that.

I got it to a point I could live with, and I listened to a record. Sigh. I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up knowing—I mean, knowing—what I had done wrong. I hadn’t marked the stylus at 1mm above the LP surface. I had set it at 1cm above the LP surface! Good grief. What a fool I am. Damn metric system. Guffaw, guffaw. I got to work and this time I did it right. And this time, my records still sounded like shit. WTF?

The only consistency to this misery was that the distortion occurred during loud, complex passages of music. For instance, I could listen to an entire side of Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, which features mostly just voice and guitar, without a single problem. I could listen to parts of Veckatimest happily, but as soon as the drums and synths and worlds came crashing down, the distortion would come raging in. I could listen to Secret Name and fall in love, but just until the enormous bass kicks came stomping in. Bass kicks that should have sounded like a family of massive elephants trudging into my living room sounded only like so much Styrofoam and crumpled paper.

Desperate, I sent an e-mail to my friend, Michael Lavorgna. Could be schmutz, he suggested. Schmutz, I thought. Can schmutz on the stylus create this awful distortion during complex passages of music? Yup, he said.

It had occurred to me that my stylus could be dirty. I had given it a good swipe with Mobile Fidelity’s LP#9 stylus cleaner. And while I’m happy to use this product regularly, feeling that it prolongs the life of my Elys and maybe even makes my records sound better, it hadn’t really solved my distortion problem. But another thought came to mind: LP#9 comes with a small stylus cleaning brush. I’ve never used it because it seems rather rough. On this night, however, desperate as I was, I went for it.

I put a flashlight to my stylus and noticed all sorts of schmutz up in there. Strands of dust hung from my stylus and clawed out in so many directions—like tentacles, like snakes. Eek. Very carefully—I mean, extremely carefully—I swabbed the stylus with the itty-bitty brush, starting from the back and gently stroking forward. I did this three times and quit. I prayed. I sat down on my orange couch and played one of the problematic records.

I listened, scared.

A smile blossomed across my face and wrapped itself around my entire living room.

I sighed a sigh of happiness and relief.

I sent a round of breathless text messages to Michael. The first went at 8:33PM.

8:33PM: as of this moment, my system is sounding better than ever…two tracks in without a hiccup, plus greater resolution, detail, and impact…will try another track.

Go to bed now, ML advised.

8:48PM: i am now convinced that it was nothing but the schmutz. ha! thanks so much, dude.

Great, go to bed.

9:05PM: hmm…just hit a really demanding track and the distortion is present again…confounding!

I told you to go to bed, ML reminded me.

I took another look at the cartridge. What I saw was a bit of a shock: My cartridge, clean only moments ago, was filthy again. WTF?

Static, ML said.

Static. I reached for the Milty ZeroStat, a blue, gun-shaped device, and shot my record not once, but twice. Bam, bam! I listened again. The distortion was lessened, but still present. I took the little scary brush to my stylus with a couple more strokes, and, for good measure, blew hot air on the stylus, as if I were restarting a Nintendo game. The distortion was still there, but at least I was able to get through an entire LP side without wanting to die.

I went to bed.

So, dear readers, here’s what I need to know: How am I supposed to live with this shit? Got any tips? Am I supposed to listen to compact discs until spring? Why didn’t I have this problem last winter? Last winter, I had ML’s Rega P3 with a Denon DL-103 moving-coil cartridge. Are moving-magnet cartridges like my Elys more susceptible to these sorts of problems? Exactly what is happening, mechanically or spiritually or whatever, during those demanding passages of music that makes my cartridge get all schmutzed up? Should I move? Should I get a humidifier?

Please let me know. Thanks.

GEORGE's picture

Move to a better place and quit spending money on records, so you don't have to live in a dump with lousy windows and floors that move. Get your PRIORITYS in place dude.

Paul S.'s picture

How about using a carbon fiber brush before each play? That's all I got. I suppose that a humidifier could help with the static.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Paul.
Yes, I do use a carbon fiber brush before each play. I suspect the Rega's felt mat may be contributing to the problem. I'm now looking for a suitable replacement. Thanks.

Mikey F.'s picture

Dry winter conditions contribute to the problem. Yes a humidifier can help but it can also deposit white powder on your records. Now in the 1980s, that was hip, but it was a different kind of deposit.You can get one of those Milty D-stat guns, which are not expensive, or you can try getting a can of Staticguard and spraying it on the floor and in the general vicinity of your turntable. That should at least eliminate the discharge POP. Also, try connecting a wire from the metal part of your carbon fiber brush (if it has one) to the screw holding the plate to the closest AC jack in the room. If the screw is painted, scrape off the paint so there's a good connection. That should help a great deal.The felt mat contributes too, so I'd get rid of that. Try a Ringmat. It may seem expensive for what it is, but for reasons I don't completely understand, it improves the sound and should reduce the static build up.

Nathan's picture

can't help with the static, but I'd suggest getting some nice tube equipment to heat the place up!

marc's picture

Bummer dude.Do you keep the lid of the Rega in place either between or during playing sessions? Also, what is the cartridge body made of? They can interact. Haven't used a Rega for years but found that even wearing the wrong socks and shirt material could make things get a bit funky if the air was really dry, especially when heater was on high during a cold dry spell. Seriously. Also, Nylon or polyester can be a major pain in the proverbial.Cheap carpets don't help either (nothing implied here)- rugs on floorboards are fine. Assuming moving to better digs is not an option,start with leaving the lid off the Rega, wear 100% cotton or linen and place a damp cloth on an oil-filled electric radiator for warmth and moisture in the apartment, place near but not close to the deck and see what happens.Or you could just use a cartridge with a wood or metal body.

Drumguy's picture

Hi Stephen,can't help you with your turntable woes but if you're looking for a warmer climate, here in Adelaide, South Australia 2 nights ago it was 105deg. F at midnight!!!

RankStranger's picture

Pro-Ject do a cork mat. I don't know if it'll make that much difference but it's a relatively cheap experiment.

JP's picture

I used to use fabric softener (prevents static cling) so that I wouldn't get shocked. You mix some liquid stuff with water in a spray bottle and spray the carpet where you stand when you open the door. I wonder if you could do something similar where you stand with the records, and also maybe fabric softener sheets under and around the turntable? It may sound crazy, but it's cheaper than moving, and you've probably already got everything you need to run a quick test tonight.

Ken's picture

Try a copper mat. and then see if you can ground the spindle from underneath. Copper is electrically conductive. (Felt is as well and is one of the reasons it is used as well btw.)

Rob Auld's picture

Problem easily solved with the use of your Zerostat on every play and a portable humidifier. Just like a foggy day, you can smell things hanging in the air that normally you don't, the moisture in the air captures things like smoke and grease from cooking making it heavier and dropping to the floor before it can float around and get on your equipment. My own turntable cover was yellow and grimy just for being a month late putting out my humidifier. Cool mist humidifiers make a fair bit of noise with their fans. Might want to get a warm mist one that heats the water and steams it into the air. Warm mist need to be cleaned far more often due to hard water deposits though.

Ima Truebeliver's picture

Simmer a pot of distilled water on the stove. Adds warmth to teh room, and humidity. Or keep a wet towel hanging in the bathroom (like, over the tub, duh). Buy a tube of silicon caulk and do your windows. If you can find a groove in a record; you have the dexterity. This stuff is *not* rocket science....

KBK's picture

They USED to have a materiel available at the local staples/business depot shops for destaticizing CRT monitors. It's gone the way of the do-do bird.Basically, it was and is an ionic release compound or fluid. In a cleaner type spray bottle.You can also rub it on your cables, for a notable increase in audio clarity, by removing the polarizing influence of the static buildup on the cable body.Since the place needs HEAT, use a kettle on the stove, turned on low so it is barely steaming...and then set the stove timer as a reminder to take it off. Or, use an open pot of water. Get a humidity checking device. To get to a situation where the static does not build - but dissipates, you need to be above about 30%-35% humidity. Remember what I said in and on the forum which people don't really understand, is that --the efficiency and response curve from wet to dry air can change by as much as 10db. There are some very sound reasons for that (pun intended)

KBK's picture

After all of that, though, I'd say that your stylus very likely needs a REAL cleaning. I'd say that there is still some gunk on the backside of the stylus, and it's causing distortion. That's the first place I'd look. ~This is important.~ Until it is taken care of ---it will eat records.

M.'s picture

Hi Steven.You have reached the same conclusion I did when I swapped my Benz MC Gold to an Ortofon 2M Blue: MM cartridges tend to distort more at some complex passages. Fiddling with the antiskating can help, but I'm afraid that distortion is just something we'll have to learn to live with. It also may have to do with the stylus tip profile: I find elyptical styli don't track as well as fine line and other more sophisticated types.If you find a solution, please let me know.Regards,M.

Mark Fleischmann's picture

I use a Watt Dust Bug for stylus cleaning, but rarely. I do use the Zero Stat gun before every side and never play anything that isn't clean. And I use an ancient Sears humidifier -- it's not ultrasonic, just a big belt that dips down and up through a large tank of water, so it doesn't spray any junk into the air.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thanks, everyone. I'm gonna go wrap my turntable in a tube sock and turn on the hot water and caulk myself to the window and see what happens.Just kidding. I appreciate the thoughts. Seriously: I'm going to remove the dustcover from the Rega and keep it off; I'm going to clean my stylus again; and I'm going to be sure to use the ZeroStat and carbon fiber brush before each play. If all that doesn't help, I'll try some more extreme measures...

Bubber's picture

This is exactly why I ditched my TT recently after only a few months! Just not worth the effort. I was running a Pro-Ject Xpression and $400 cartridge. Sound was good, but not anywhere near all the hype on vinyl had led me to believe it would be. Plus it had to be paired with a phono preamp, needed an extra interconnect, and oh yeah a speedbox. Then there were the felt matts, record clamps, and various other upgrades required to bring out it's best even further. Then there was the constant maintenance... Puh-lease...And after all of that, compared to my Rega Apollo I had trouble hearing much in the way of any difference. Of course, I'm running a tube amp so paired with the Rega I've probably already got 90% of the sound of vinyl. End of story: sold the TT and used the $ to upgrade to a Rega Saturn.

Peter B's picture

Hi Stephen,I know where you're coming from...MM carts are indeed more sensitive to static discharge and RFI, due to their (relatively speaking) large coils (inductors).Most MMs are grounded via the left channel return pin and the external Rega arm-cable is grounded the same way (internally, via the left channel shield of the coax cable). A cablesystem with discrete groundwire (from the arm's chassis to the preamp) would be more effective with most cartridges (the incognito re-wire upgrade for Rega arms does offer that extra).Taking off the dustlid won't do that much; you will be charging yourselves every time you get up from your chair/couch so you need to un-zap yourselves! The Cable Company sells a special unzapper but ypu could do it on the cheap by having a large baremetal object by your audiorack (such as a stainless steel doorknob) which you can touch before touching anything else. That is the most effective method of removing static from you; the Milty gun will work fairly wellon LP's.

brad's picture

Stephen:Going from a felt mat to the Funk Achromat solved probably 90% of my static problem. Helped the sound too. Cheaper than Herbie's.--Brad

Chuck H.'s picture

First off, use distilled water (available at any grocery store for cheap) in the humidifier. This will prevent the nasty white powder effect (calcium deposits from the tap water).Second use the fabric softener in water sprayed onto the carpeting and! your clothes.Third make sure that you have a grounded, as in earth grounded, electrical outlet and ground your system through it. Buy an inexpensive ($15 to $20) electrical socket tester at your local electronics store, and use it to check for both proper polarity at your electrical socket, but also to make sure the ground is really a ground.It has 3 little lights on it that show you whats up. I have found that anti static turntable mats help, but you have to set up your tonearm again.Best of luck from a dry climate. Chuck the grumpy gator.

rvance's picture

Hi Stephen. Places like this: sell a variety of static control mats which will help dissipate any static you might be contributing to the circuit when walking around, then touching the tonearm. I wonder if cutting a piece of matting and placing under the TT would help? Good luck.

Marc's picture

@ Peter B,"Taking off the dustlid won't do that much" It will on a Rega. What Stephen is hearing is as much severe miss-tracking as it is dirt. On some occasions with my old Rega, with a plastic bodied cartridge, the arm would actually lift clear of the LP and stick to the centre of the lid! The removal of the lid won't remove static per say, but it will remove the attractive force from the lid that the static creates. With the lid on, even mild static charge will produce audible miss-tracking when the music gets complex. This is less noticeable on sparse or simple passages as the groove that the stylus is traversing is relatively more benign.

Stephen Mejias's picture

On some occasions with my old Rega, with a plastic bodied cartridge, the arm would actually lift clear of the LP and stick to the centre of the lid!Whoa. Fascinating. I haven't had time to work on the problem yet, but one thing I know for certain is that the dustcover is coming off for GOOD.

mikeb's picture

Static - it also depends on the cartridge, and can be more than just an inconvenience. I destroyed one channel of my Sony receiver's phono section some years ago with a static blast from a Grado cartridge in my AR turntable. That cart always popped with small static discharges while playing records in the winter and summer (heating and a/c seasons). One day I picked it up at the end of the record, there was a blast I could FEEL, a spark I could see between the stylus and the record, a very loud noise (is that what popped the woofers in my EPIs - would have been about that time - hmmm), and the left channel (only the phono) now is pure noise & distortion no matter what I feed it with. Not worth fixing in what's become the TV room system (mostly used as a power amp and background music), but be careful - you might get more than just schmutz.I never had a static problem with a Stanton cartridge. Maybe it's the metal case (Stanton) rather than plastic? Maybe it's (horrors!) the brush?

ashulman's picture

What about your cleaning procedure? I have a similar problem and I believe its from cleaning records but not vacuming and leaving a residue. I clean them again and the problem goes away. Of course that might solve a static problem too I guess.

Andy's picture

I had a similar problem. We also live at 5000 feet, which doesn't help when it comes to dry air. I found attaching a ground cable to one of the arm mounting screws, and to the earth screw of drive the motor, this wire should then in turn should be attached to either the earth screw on the amp, or be connected to the earth pin in a standard plug and plugged directly into the mains.Static is building up in your system and has nowhere to escape to, the wire should give it an escape route,I think there may also be another problem, you mentioned things getting worse half way through the record, this sound like the arm is being affected by some other force which is pulling the cartridge out of alignment. Maybe something nearby creating a magnetic force which is skewing the HTA and causing the distortion. I had a magnet sitting about 400mm from the cartridge, It was attaching a piece of card at the back of the stand to hide cabling, believe it or not, I removed it just check if it was having any effect, bingo!