Dr Ray Dolby, OBE, founder of the company bearing his name, has died aged 80.
Truly the inventor of the way we listen, Dolby was involved in the development of video recording, designed technology to change the humble cassette from a dictation medium into a true audio format, and went on to turn stereo movies into surround, and see them all the way through to digital systems with multichannel sound.
Born in Portland, Oregon, he founded the company bearing his name in London in 1965, after some years working for Ampex, where he worked on video recorders, a PhD at Cambridge – where he became the first American Fellow of Pembroke College, served a year as an advisor to the Atomic Energy Authority, and met his wife – , and a two-year appointment as a UN advisor in India.
Dolby’s early work was on analogue noise reduction, at first for professional equipment: in 1966 it developed Dolby A for studio use, and in 1968 spun off from it the simpler Dolby B for domestic hardware, notably the Philips-invented compact cassette, which had been introduced in 1963.
This was followed in 1980 by Dolby C, which again became standard on most cassette decks, and offered a greater degree of noise reduction (around 15dB against the 9dB of Dolby B).
Dolby S was intended as the replacement for Dolby B when it arrived in 1989, with the intention it should be used on all pre-recorded tapes. Dolby claimed most listeners couldn’t distinguish a Dolby S recording from a CD. However, by the time it arrived CD was well-established, and Dolby S never took off as the company hoped it would.
In 1977, Ray Dolby and his family had moved to San Francisco, where the company is still headquartered, and was working on better surround systems for the movie industry. While the film most associated with the arrival of Dolby Stereo surround sound in the cinema is Star Wars, in fact it wasn’t the first to use the technology.
Ken Russell’s Lizstomania used an early four-channel version in 1975, and the first to use the system branded as Dolby Stereo was the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake of A Star is Born. However, the success of Star Wars certainly encouraged many cinemas to install Dolby Stereo surround systems.
In parallel with its cinema systems, Dolby developed formats to bring the surround experience home: in 1982 it launched Dolby Surround, a consumer version of the Dolby Stereo format, allowing surround sound to be enjoyed at home. Using extra information matrixed into a stereo soundtrack, the Dolby system allowed the same audio to be played in mono, in stereo or – with a decoder – in surround, making it simple to distribute content via broadcast or on videotape without remixing.
Many home cinema enthusiasts started their obsession with a VHS cassette recorder, and a Dolby Surround (or later Dolby Pro-Logic) processor or receiver. I know I did – if I remember, it was with a Philips Hi-Fi VCR feeding a Marantz decoder, and later a Yamaha DSP-E580 (left), hung off my main stereo system.
Dolby Pro-Logic brought with it improved channel-steering when it arrived in 1987, and the technology is still found in its latest IIx or IIz form in current AV receivers and processors, the latest IIz version being able to add a height component to the sound, using systems of 9.1 channels or more.
Dolby Digital as Batman Returns
In the cinemas, summer 1992 saw the arrival of Dolby Digital for Batman Returns: using lossy compression and a constant 320kbps bitrate, this managed to carry six channels of sound (or 5.1-channel) on conventional 35mm film prints. The technology first appeared in the home on Laserdisc releases in the mid-90s, and has since become a de facto standard for home cinema on DVD and Blu-ray.
Various versions of the technology exist, including Dolby Digital EX, which uses up to 7.1 channels, but Dolby TrueHD took another step forward. Using Meridian Lossless Packing technology developed by the British audio company, it’s able to carry up to 14 channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio, stored losslessly.
And Dolby Laboratories is still moving on: in 2012 its Dolby Atmos system, capable of up to 128 audio tracks, was premiered with the animated film Brave. It’s hoped 1000 cinemas worldwide will have the system by the end of this year, and there are also plans to bring Atmos to home cinema equipment. That’s going to need a lot more speakers…!
In acknowledgement of Dolby’s contribution to cinema, the theatre in which the annual Academy Awards – the Oscars – takes place is called the Dolby Theatre, and aftershow celebrations are held in the Ray Dolby Ballroom. Not surpringly, the first installation of the Dolby Atmos system was in the Dolby Theatre.
The company has won many awards for its technology over the years – no fewer than 10 Oscars and 13 Emmys.
Yet Ray Dolby was an electronics engineer by an accident of time: his first love was all things mechanical, but unfortunately most of those had been invented by the time he started working.
His family recall recall overland drives from India, Ray piloting planes across the Atlantic, and roadtrips to national parks, and Dolby himself said that, ‘I’ve often thought that I would have made a great 19th century engineer, because I love machinery.
‘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.
‘Remember that most of my life was that of an adventurer, not of somebody who is trying to invent something all the time. 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.’
As ever, Ray Dolby was modest about his talent: as Ioan Allen, Dolby’s senior vice president of cinema relations, puts it, ‘The public doesn’t really know about Ray Dolby. He’s out there somewhere. But they’re aware of the fact that a cassette labelled Dolby sounds good. That Dolby Surround sounds good. There’s a switch – look, I can switch it in and out, isn’t that great? You know.
‘And they’re kind of aware of the fact that Dolby on a theater marquee sounds good. But all those things are possible, because of Ray Dolby’s inventions which are at the heart of the whole process.’
Ray Dolby died at his home in San Francisco, after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for some years, and having been diagnosed with acute leukemia two months ago. He’s survived by his wife of 47 years, his sons Tom and David, and four grandchildren.
Dagmar Dolby says of her late husband ‘Ray really managed to have a dream-job, because he could do exactly what he wanted to do, whichever way he wanted to do it, and in the process, did a lot of good for many music and film lovers.’
Written by Andrew Everard