Remembering Ray Dolby: A Life of Invention
COW Library : Audio Engineering : Debra Kaufman : Remembering Ray Dolby: A Life of Invention
Ray Dolby, who recently died at age 80, was first and foremost an inventor. "To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope towards an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer," said Dolby, who accrued 50 U.S. patents, two Oscars, several Emmys, a Grammy and an astonishing number of other awards and honors. But what he'll always be remembered for is his eponymous inventions that revolutionized audio technologies.
"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," said George Lucas to the San Francisco Chronicle on September 13. "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."
"Ray will be missed," Lucas added later in an email, "but his many contributions to the industry will certainly live on."
When Ray Dolby was honored with the Charles S. Swartz Award at the Hollywood Post Alliance's seventh annual HPA Awards in November 2012, sound designer and editor Walter Murch lauded him, commenting that film sound could be divided into "Before Dolby and After Dolby." The "Before Dolby" era – from the beginning of recorded sound – was characterized by a constant background hiss, an underlying and irritating noise that was especially noticeable in quiet moments.
Ray Dolby was honored with the Charles S. Swartz Award at the Hollywood Post Alliance's seventh annual HPA Awards in November 2012, among many others, including [pictured above Ray Dolby receiving] the U.S. National Medal of Technology Medal at National Science & Technology Award Banquet, 1997.
"Before Dolby noise reduction, the tape hiss was as loud as the original source signal," recalls musician/composer Mickey Hart. "We would have to use extreme techniques to even come close to the sound we wanted. It was simply out of the range and design of the magnetic tape of the day. Until Ray's vision."
Ray's vision was a way to reduce that hiss to an imperceptible level, productized in a series of Dolby NR (Noise Reduction) systems for use with analog magnetic tape recording. Dolby A debuted in recording studios in 1965. In 1975, Dolby debuted Dolby Stereo, a practical 35 mm stereo optical release print format, which was used (to acclaim) on Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dolby Surround, which encodes the two-tracks of any stereo source with four-channel surround sound, was unveiled in 1982, and in 1989, Dolby came out with Dolby AC-2, another boost to the professional market since it allowed separate facilities to do high quality audio monitoring and dubbing remotely via ISDN lines.
But Dolby was never one to rest on his laurels; what drove him was the constant desire to invent and improve. In fact, he joked that he wished he had been born in an earlier era. "I've often thought that I would have made a great 19th century engineer, because I love machinery," he said. "I would have liked to have been in a position to make a better steam engine, or to invent the first internal combustion engine; to work on the first car. All my life, I've loved everything that goes; I mean bicycles, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, boats, sail or power, airplanes, helicopters. I love all of these things, and I just regret that I was born in a time when most of those mechanical problems had already been solved and what remained were electronic problems."
By 1991, he'd created Dolby AC-3, a new multichannel audio coding system. First utilized as a sound format for films, AC-3 is now known as Dolby Digital; the first consumer products with Dolby Digital playback compatibility were unveiled four years later. A focus on research and development kept the inventions coming: Dolby Headphone technology, Dolby E codec for DTV multichannel audio production and distribution, Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Virtual Speaker technology, Dolby TrueHD lossless coding for HD video discs, Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, Dolby Axon for 3D voice communication to online games; Dolby Mobile technology for 5.1 channel surround sound on mobile phones; Dolby Surround 7.1 for digital cinemas and, later, streaming media.
Dolby Laboratories got into professional monitors with the Dolby PRM-4200 Professional Reference Monitor for post production houses, and, last year, debuted Dolby Atmos, a new audio platform for the cinema industry. Dolby Atmos is installed in the Hollywood theater – now called the Dolby Theatre – where the Academy Awards take place annually.
Although most who work behind the scenes in Hollywood are familiar with Dolby for advancements in professional sound, Ray Dolby, and the company he founded and led, made significant advances in sound for the consumer marketplace. For example, Dolby B, unveiled in 1968, enabled high fidelity sound on cassette tapes and is still in common use on tape players and recorders. According to the company, more than 7.4 billion consumer products worldwide use Dolby technologies, including personal computers, mobile devices and video game machines.
Dolby, who was born in Portland, Oregon in 1933, had an auspicious beginning to his career. From ages 16 to 24, while he was still, first, a high school student and then enrolled at Stanford University, he worked at Ampex Corporation where he led the development of the electronic aspects of the Ampex videotape recording system. He received a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford. Awarded a Marshall Scholarship and a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship, he studied at Cambridge University in England, was the first American to be named a Fellow at Pembroke College, and, in 1961, received a Ph.D. degree in physics from Cambridge. Years later, in 1983, he was elected an Honorary Fellow.
"Remember that most of my life was that of an adventurer, not of somebody who is trying to invent something all the time," said Dolby. "I wanted the experience of traveling to many parts of the world. Inventions were part of my life, but they didn't overtake everything that I was doing." Dolby did indeed travel the world, starting with a two-year appointment in 1963 as a United Nations advisor in India. He then returned to England (where he had met his wife Dagmar) and in 1965 founded Dolby Laboratories in London.
He returned to Northern California in 1976, moving to San Francisco where he established the company's headquarters, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities. Dolby Laboratories has been honored with 10 Academy Awards and 13 Emmy Awards over the years for its achievements. But, true to his word, the adventures continued: later on in his life, Dolby enjoyed aviation, flying planes across the Atlantic.
Dolby's son Tom, himself a filmmaker (and novelist), stressed that although his father was "an engineer at heart," his achievements in technology "grew out of a love of music and the arts." "He brought his appreciation of the artistic process to all of his work in film and audio recording," he said.
Ray Dolby in his San Francisco home laboratory, 1999.
The film and sound/music industries returned that appreciation in abundance. "Dolby's work changed the way movies were made, because sound became a powerful artistic element, and you could do things with sound that had never been done before," said director Philip Kaufman. "Before there was Silicon Valley, there was Dolby, who was marketing a digital experience to the entire world."
Dolby's other awards included the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1997, the Order of Officer of the British Empire (O.B.E.) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987, and Honorary Doctorates from Cambridge University and University of York. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the U.S. and the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK in 2004.
"There is no major next step," Dolby said. "It's a matter of constantly being aware of one's environment, of keeping track of what's happening in the various industries that we're operating in and just sort of sensing what's possible and what's not possible, what's needed, what's not needed – just having all your antennae going, sensitized to all the signals that are out there.
In honor of Ray Dolby's legacy, the family asks that donations be made to the Alzheimer's Association, 1060 La Avenida Street, Mountain View, CA 94043, or the Brain Health Center, c/o CPMC Foundation, 45 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94117.
Ray Dolby 1933 – 2013