Dr. Ray Dolby, founder and guiding force behind Dolby Laboratories from 1965 to 2009, died on Thursday at his home in San Francisco, CA, according to an announcement by the company. He was 80.
The exact circumstances of Dolby’s death were not included in the announcement, but he lived with Alzheimer’s disease for several years and was diagnosed with acute Leukemia in July of this year. During those 80 years of life, he amassed a fortune of approximately $2.9 billion dollars, was awarded more than 50 U.S. Patents, and fundamentally changed how we watch and listen to media in the modern world.
Raymond Milton Dolby was born on January 18, 1933 in Portland, Oregon, son of salesman Earl Milton Dolby and Esther (Strand) Dolby. The family relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1940’s where Mr. Dolby graduated from Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA in 1951. Flush with the post-War economic boom, the roots of what later would be known as Silicon Valley, were spreading quickly across the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s and Dr. Dolby was in the middle of it all.
After high school, he got summer jobs and later full-time work with Ampex, a Redwood City company responsible for introducing some of the first commercial tape recorders (most notably, the 200A in 1948 used by Les Paul for his “Sound on Sound” overdubbed hits of the 1950s) and later the 8-channel Sel-Sync system used by Mr. Paul and Atlantic Records through the late 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Dolby’s contributions at Ampex were in a related field; he was on the team led by Charles Ginsburg that developed the VR-1000, the first commercially available video tape recorder ever made. Dr. Dolby was responsible for developing components for this system while working his way through college at Stanford University. The use of commercial video tape fundamentally changed how television programming was made, and directly led to its use in the home first as video tape and streamed digital media used today.
After receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 1957, he received a Marshall Scholarship and a National Science Foundation Fellowship and quit his job at Ampex. He went to Cambridge, England where he earned a Ph.D. in Physics and was a Research Fellow at Pembroke College. Upon graduation, Dr. Dolby was an adviser to the United Nations in Northern India until 1965. At this point, he returned to England and founded Dolby Laboratories.
At Dolby Labs, he was first responsible for developing Dolby Noise Reduction. Ubiquitous on the cassette tapes popular in the 1970s and 1980s, this system attempts to reduce the hiss introduced by tape in the music recording process by increasing the volume of higher frequency sounds as they were recorded, and then reducing them again during tape playback. Prior to this innovation, the best method for reducing tape hiss in recorded music involved the use of the electronic gates to prevent tracks of sound from going to tape at all when voices or instruments were silent. From that point on, the innovation of Dolby Noise Reduction allowed classic albums starting with titles such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to be recorded, mixed, and mastered with the fidelity that we still enjoy.
Along with his work on noise reduction for recorded material, Dr. Dolby turned to the problem of sound playback in movie theaters. Since the commercial introduction of talking pictures in 1927, a variety of methods were used over the years to synchronize sound with film, none of them particularly great. After using large records and a few attempts at mounting magnetic tape to reels of film, the industry standard was to encode a film’s soundtrack optically on a separate part of the film. The fidelity of this optical track was poor compared to a taped soundtrack recorded and mixed with Dolby Noise Reduction (such as for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). In response, Dr. Dolby and Dolby Labs dramatically improved the capabilities of the optical sound track, introducing Dolby Stereo as a method for both increasing the fidelity of the playback of movie sounds and creating a standard for the multichannel playback commonly used in both theaters and homes today.
Of Dolby Stereo, Star Wars creator George Lucas has said: “Ray’s pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing ‘Star Wars’ to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be. Not only was he an inventor with a passion for the art of sound, but that passion was combined with an incredible technical understanding of the science behind it all.”
Philip Kaufman, director of the great 1970’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has also said that Dolby Stereo allowed him while making that film to “design a whole scene around the sound. There was a scene of motorcycles and cars going through the Broadway tunnel, and it could seem as though the sound was actually moving around the audience, as the vehicles moved through the tunnel.”
These are innovations to recorded media that are fundamental to commercial home entertainment as we consume them today. For these these things and much more, Dr. Ray Dolby shall be missed.
RIP Ray Dolby
January 18, 1933 – September 12, 2013