Dirt, dust and foreign objects don't mix well with video equipment. This article explains what cleaning products work best, and how to use them safely and effectively.
Slowly, you remove the first raw footage tape from its case. You ever-so-gently slide it into the VCR. Touching "play" on the remote, you settle back to view what will become your first professionally produced masterpiece.
Wait a minute. What's with the band of snow running horizontally across the entire image? Nah, it couldn't be anything serious. Just a fleck of dust on the VCR?s head. Try another tape, something you recorded last week; that'll get the bugger off the head. In goes the next tape. Hmmm. Nothing wrong. Must've knocked it clean with the eject function. You insert raw footage tape two into the VCR. This one looks like a Star Wars sequel with laser-like interruptions shooting back and forth across the screen. Tapes three and four produce the same dismal results. Could the most dreaded of all dreaded video catastrophes have occurred?
From the sounds of this scenario (and my own horrible past experience), I'd have to say yes. You were the unlucky possessor of dirty video heads. One way or another, dust, grime, hair or some foreign airborne object vacationed on your video head. And it only stayed long enough to ruin some very important recordings--as is often the case. What can you do? The shoot's over. The props are gone. The actors are busy. The location is unavailable. The footage is useless. Your excuses are stale. About the only thing you can gain from this whole miserable exercise in futility is knowledge; you now know how important it is to clean your video gear regularly.
The Importance of Being Spotless
If you've ever had the chance to visit a Hollywood set, you'd quickly discover the importance of cleaning equipment. Between nearly every take and always between each roll of film, technicians thoroughly clean the camera lens, film gate and transport mechanism. And it's not just because Hollywood sets are notorious for employing gaggles of unneeded technicians. It's because these folks know how a single hair can ruin a perfect take. And, on a big-budget Hollywood set, restaging that perfect take may require spending another million bucks. Would you like to take on that responsibility because you forgot to clean the camera?
Certainly, a ruined take isn't going to put you a million in the red. But sometimes it feels like it. Even on the smallest scale production, wasting time and resources is nothing to slough off. And if cleaning negligence is the culprit, then shame on you. To protect yourself (and your famed reputation), there are several maintenance products that will keep your videos in tip-top shape.
These Bunnies Are Not Cute
Believe it or not, airborne minuscule dust particles somehow find a landing pad in the form of your video head. How they do it, I'm not sure. But an unprotected VCR is a magnet to dust. So cover it up, already!
VCR dust covers are one of the cheapest and easiest ways to maintain your equipment. Ranging in price from $5 to $20, these tough and pliable vinyl protectors are definitely worth the expenditure. Recoton, Gemini and Radio Shack all make several varieties that are universally available through video supply catalogs and even mass merchandiser stores.
You should only keep a VCR cover on the machine when not in use. Heat and moisture damage may result from a covered, powered-up VCR. This is especially true in an air-conditioned environment. It's also wise to give the unit a cool-down period before replacing the cover. The VCR gets hot while in use, and condensation from the cooled air may form if you cover it too quickly.
While a dust cover's main function is to protect against electronic equipment's greatest enemy, it's also handy in a busy environment. Let's say your VCR is in the family room. Junior decides he and his friends want to have their dinner while watching some TV. Ooops! There goes a glass of pop. Not to worry. You've safely protected your VCR under a layer of plastic.
Now, however, Junior insists on watching some tapes while entertaining his gang of hoodlums. How do you protect your VCR while allowing them to use it at the same time? Luckily, some manufacturers considered this dilemma, designing covers that allow heat and moisture to escape. While not as water-resistant as their plastic brethren, Recoton's quilted cotton covers do provide dust and smoke protection, and probably enough liquid stoppage to protect your equipment until you get a chance to clean up the mess. What's more, they're reasonably priced at under $15.
Keeping the exterior of your VCR looking spiffy helps deter dust, but use only approved cleaners. Many household cleaning sprays are much too harsh for the plastic found on a VCR. And if these chemicals accidentally find their way into the interior of your machine, a little dust problem will seem minor in comparison. Approved cleaning sprays, such as those from Statx, will get the job done in an "approved" manner. When you clean the unit, apply the liquid to a cloth first. Do not spray it directly onto the machine and risk moisture entering the unit.
Exterior maintenance is great, but like a car, just because it's shiny doesn't mean it runs well. No matter how meticulous you are about cleaning and covering the outside of the unit, sooner or later some dust gets in.
This tiny culprit is surely an annoyance, but there's worse. Low-cost, poor-quality tapes like to drop off some of their unwanted magnetic oxides as they travel through your VCR. This material is what makes a tape record an image. After many tape viewings and recordings, this "gunk" combined with dust and other dirt particles collects on the rollers, guides and pins. And in time, the mess ends up on video and audio heads, just waiting to mangle the sound and image.
If you rent tapes frequently, you're very likely to encounter such problems. Not only is your VCR a depository for homegrown garbage, but it's also the lucky recipient of everyone else's who rents the same tapes as you.
A dirty video head causes exactly the type of problems described at the beginning of this article. Snowy playback picture, sync problems, intermittent hi-fi audio and excessive video image dropout are all indications of clogged video heads in any format. Further, dirt on VHS machines can affect the stationary heads, causing control track problems and even problems with the mono audio. Whether in your VCR or camcorder, it's a condition that you want to avoid, and fortunately there are plenty of products out there to help you out.
Under this "internal cleaning" header, you'll find two divisions: wet cleaners and dry cleaners. Which to use? Many professional video technicians I've spoken with say wet is the way to go. It most closely emulates the methodical technique they use when carefully disassembling a VCR and cleaning each individual part with a wet cleaner. Another school of pros argue that the wet system leaves too much of the chemical on the heads. This, they say, may actually contribute to clogging the unit much like dust and oxides. Whatever method you choose, just be sure to choose one.
In the wet category, Geneva's ozone-safe system is guaranteed not to harm your deck or the environment. Workable with VHS, S-VHS, Beta, 8mm and Hi8, prices range from $17-$18. The cleaner includes 60 feet of cleaning tape, enough for 52 fresh cleanings.
Geneva's VR-144 is a wet cleaner designed specifically for full-sized VHS camcorders. Similar to the VCR model, this cleaner features a thinner ribbon. This prevents jamming that may occur as the tape winds through the camcorder's more compact transport mechanism.
Wet cleaners are popular, as the following array of products prove; for VHS, 8mm and VHS-C, Recoton, Bib, and Discwasher all offer units priced under $13.
Some wet cleaners come with the fluid already contained inside the unit. This eliminates the need to apply the chemical manually. It also may reduce the chance of spillage or over-application. A unique product from Kinyo, the SV-711 ($11) lets the user dispense liquid onto the cleaning path with a push-button system. Windows on the cassette allow monitoring of fluid level. The SV-800 ($16), known as the Pump, is Kinyo's deluxe, fully-transparent version of the self-contained system. Recoton's V-144 ($10) and the V-40 from Bib ($15) are two other pump-style VHS cleaning cassettes.
For the dry users, there's Bib's V-49 ($10), a full-size VHS cleaner that runs automatically, stopping and rewinding when the job's done. VHS-C and 8mm versions exist as well. They both retail for around $15. For VHS dry-cleaning, Discwasher's 1780 and JVC's TCL-2 are both available for about $7. For 8mm users, try Fuji's 8CL-10 ($17) or Geneva's VR-185 ($17).
Maybe deciding between wet and dry is too tough of a choice. You like the idea of the fluid cleansing your heads, but also think a dry cleaning ribbon may help remove more adhered gunk. Well, not to worry, folks. There's a product out there to satisfy your divided tastes. Allsop's VHS Wet/Dry Head and Tape Path Cleaner with SoftSweep Brush uses a non-abrasive, ribbed cleaning ribbon that alternates wet and dry. The wet sections loosen harmful contaminants while the dry sections break up and remove debris on the heads, capstan and pinch roller. As an added feature, the Allsop cleaner also uses a unique scrubber arm to thoroughly clean the drum and video head. The cleaning cassette is good for approximately 75 cleanings.
Clean It Like The Pros
Automatic cleaners? No way! You're the type that wants to see what's what in that little metal-encased box that provides so much enjoyment. You want to manually clean your VCR or camcorder, just like the pros who'll charge you a quick $25 for the service. For those so inclined, Markertek offers an exhaustive line of professional cleaning products.
The first thing you'll need (after taking the top off of your VCR) is some head cleaner fluid. Chemtronics offers an 8-ounce bottle of non-residue cleaner for $7. Ampex's 4-ounce, ultra-pure liquid is available for $13.
You'll need to use a swab or brush to get the liquid to the heads and other hard-to-reach places inside your deck or camcorder. Swabs can be foam, cotton or chamois tipped, and Markertek stocks a variety of shapes, sizes and lengths. The foam-tipped variety won't leave lint or loose fibers hanging on the head or any sharp corners. Note though that a sharp-edged video head can grab the foam and rip it or possibly cause damage to the head itself.
Foamtips Pro are double-tipped swabs with two different types of cleaning surfaces. They come 50 to a pack and sell for $20. For large surface cleaning, Foamtips 110 ($13 for 50) have a full-sized urethane cleaning tip. Manufactured from pharmaceutical-grade, bleached white cotton, Cottontips are a good bargain, at $4 for a box of 100. If you really want to save, you can buy the double-headed style at the same price.
Again, like the wet/dry conflict, a hybrid swab exists. Foamtips 100 ($13 for 50) are constructed of a foam swab over a cotton bud. The cotton inside provides extra absorbency that is sometimes lost with the foam-only models.
Note that you should never use cotton-tipped swabs on video heads, because the fine cotton strands can get between the halves of the video head and cause serious damage. Instead, use a chamois-tipped swab. Created with ultra-cleaned, natural chamois leather, a pack of 5 is available from Bib America for $5.
You may want to skip a step and clean your gear with pre-moistened swabs. Chemswabs from Markertek ($20 for 25) are lint-free, non-abrasive foam swabs pre-moistened with solvent and sealed in a convenient foil pouch. These are excellent for cleaning while on location, where transport of bottled cleaning fluids may not be possible.
Before putting the lid back on your VCR, there's a couple of other cleaning tools you may want to check out. Scotty's Vita Drive ($3.45) cleans and restores the gripping surface of pinch rollers and other rubber drives.
Dust in Other Places
Remember the dust problem? Well, your video head isn't the only place this devil lives. Dust and other assorted debris accumulates in all the crooks and crannies of your VCR and camcorder body. A simple solution is Markertek's miniature vacuum cleaner. Unlike compressed air, which simply disperses the problem into other areas, the mini-vac sucks dirt into a tiny holding bag. The $24 unit can be battery or A/C powered.
One final internal maintenance function is head demagnetization. Demagnetization of recording and playback heads is important because over time, the heads can gain an unwanted magnetic charge from the tapes played over them. A magnetized recording head can cause some hiss and distortion during both playback and recording, and this limits high-frequency response during playback.
Demagnetization should occur after around every 200 hours of VCR or camcorder operation. And if you're a serious enthusiast, that number rolls up quite quickly. It's a fairly simple process, one that involves placing an electronic probe very near, but not touching, the heads. But be careful when demagnetizing video heads, especially when using demagnetizes that were designed for use with audio recorders. Some are strong enough to damage the much smaller video heads.
Professional video head demagnetizers from Markertek and Comprehensive Video Supply are available for $35 and $55 respectively.
For those with a serious technical bent, all-in-one maintenance kits are available. Markertek's VCR Deluxe Cleaning Kit ($55) should satisfy all your cleaning desires. It contains head cleaner, compressed air, head demagnetizer, inspection mirror, anti-static cleaning cloth, foam swabs, cleaning brush and instructions in a convenient plastic case. A similar kit is available from Phoenix. This $25 combo substitutes a mini-vacuum/blower for the demagnetizer.
Look Around Back
Keeping the rear of your VCR in tip-top shape is one maintenance function many videographers fail to perform. It's easy to recognize a dusty top, grimy controls and soda spills. And the snowstorm-like effects from interior clogging are extremely noticeable. But dirt on connectors, cable ends and contacts won't exactly slap you in the face. It's tough to imagine this part of the machine needing any cleaning. Even after several years as a video professional, cleaning electrical connectors was one chore that escaped my attentions. I was made aware of this vital job by a friendly video technician. He described the job as something usually reserved for serious technicians who actually understand the importance clean connections mean to the integrity of the video signal.
Markertek offers several of what they refer to as "technician's service kits." Cramolin's K-405 ($70) includes their own brand of liquid, paste and spray for cleaning, preserving and lubricating all electrical contacts and connectors. The package also includes lint-free cloth, paper, swabs, brushes and technical literature.
There are also several types of solutions specifically designed for the task of cleaning electrical connections. CAIG's DeoxIT line ($10-$18) is a one-step, fast-acting deoxidizing solution that cleans, preserves, lubricates and improves conductivity on all metal surfaces. It's a non-toxic, non-corrosive and non-gumming material that you can use on switches, plugs, jacks, faders, pots, cables, terminals and microphone connectors. PreservIT products ($10-$15), also from CAIG, seal, lubricate and preserve metal surfaces from oxidation and contamination. Markertek's E-Series Electronics Cleaner/Degreaser 2000 ($10-$15) is a general purpose cleaning and degreasing agent for corrective and preventative electronic maintenance. Contact Clean 2000 ($12-$16) is a quick-penetrating precision cleaner that helps restore and improve electrical continuity for all types of contacts and switches.
Your camcorder?s innards may be clean as a whistle. And after that last maintenance overhaul, your VCR is in showroom condition. But you still notice an annoying fleck on the video image. Looks like you might have forgotten the obvious--dirt on the lens!
Luckily, a variety of wipes and liquid cleaners are on the market to keep your view clear. Rosco lens tissues are four-by-six-inch dry sheets packed 100 to a booklet. The $4.25 price tag is a wise investment. If you want to insure clarity, try Rosco's liquid lens cleaner ($4.75). The 2-ounce droplet bottle contains an ultra-safe liquid for coated and clear lenses. Another dry product, Kimwipes ($7 for a box of 280), is a finely creped, single-ply, low-lint tissue that works well as a lens cleaner.
For the completist, Philips has put together a camcorder lens cleaning kit that's handy for location shoots. It includes a blower brush, lens cleaning fluid, soft chamois cloth and a packet of tissue.
Cleaning your video equipment is important. Even if you're just a hobbyist, it's nice to know that when the video signal goes haywire, it isn't due to your incompetence. With the wide range of products available on the market, maintaining your gear is not only easy to do, but inexpensive as well.
Cleaning Product Manufacturers
This list is only a sampling. It is not intended to be comprehensive.
P.O. Box 23
Bellingham, WA 98227
P.O. Box 27682
Denver, CO 80227
16744 West Bernardo Dr.
San Diego, CA 92127-1904
Comprehensive Video Supply
148 Veterans Drive
North Vale, NJ 07647
2950 Lake Emma Road
Lake Mary, FL 32746
555 Taxter Road
Elmsford, NY 10523
215 Entin Road
Clifton, NJ 07014
9909 South Shore Drive
Plymouth, MN 55441
41 Slater Drive
Elmwood Park, NJ 07407
14235 Lomitas Avenue
LaPuente, CA 91746
Markertek Video Supply
4 High Street
Saugerties, NY 12477
1600 Memorex Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95050
112 Mott Street
Oceanside, NY 11572
46-23 Crane Street
Long Island City, NY 11101
36 Blush Avenue
Port Chester, NY 10573
1110 Lake-Cook Road
Buffalo Grove, IL 60089
700 One Tandy Center
Ft. Worth, TX 76102
3M Consumer Video
3M Center Building
St. Paul, MN 55144-1000