Obituary: Ray Dolby, audio pioneer

Charlotte Smith
Friday, September 13, 2013

Dr Ray Dolby, OBE, who has died aged 80, was an academic, an engineer and a true audio enthusiast, responsible for the electronics behind video recording, and of course the technologies for noise reduction and surround sound bearing his name.

From systems designed to remove the hiss from the humble cassette tape, thus turning it from a dictation medium to a true audio format, to professional noise reduction employed in analogue recording studios, and from the surround systems in the analogue cinema age to the latest Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on Blu-ray discs – all are testament to the achievements and constant curiosity of Ray Dolby.

After all, this was the man who said that ‘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’, but who nonetheless managed almost single-handedly to invent an entire industry.

These days Dolby Laboratories is headquartered in San Francisco, and Ray Dolby’s contribution to the audio and cinema industries is marked by annual Academy Awards, or Oscars, being held in what is now called the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, with the after show gala in the Ray Dolby Ballroom.

The company itself has won 10 Academy Awards and 13 Emmy awards over the years.

The man behind the name

But while the Dolby name is everywhere, from consumer hardware to the credits on films and discs, most consumers know very little about the man behind the company.

Or 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 – and they’re kind of aware of the fact that Dolby on a theatre marquee sounds good. But all those things are possible because of Ray Dolby’s inventions which are at the heart of the whole process.’

Also relatively unknown is that, while Dolby was an American, born in Portland, Oregon, he founded the company bearing his name in London in 1965.

That came after some years working for Ampex, where he developed the electronics making possible early video recorders, and then a PhD at Cambridge, where he became the first American Fellow of Pembroke College, an advisor to the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and held a two-year appointment as a UN advisor in India.

Beating the hiss

The company’s early work was on analogue noise reduction, at first for professional equipment and subsequently for domestic hardware, notably the Philips-invented compact cassette, which had been introduced in 1963.

Dolby B noise-reduction, which would become ubiquitous on pre-recorded ‘musicassettes’ in the 1970s, was launched in 1968 as a simpler version of the original Dolby A, introduced in 1966 as a professional-use system. It 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 meant as the replacement for Dolby B when it arrived in 1989, with the intention it should be used on all pre-recorded tapes. However, by this time the CD was taking over from cassettes, and Dolby S never achieved the widespread use intended for it, even though Dolby claimed most listeners couldn't distinguish a Dolby S recording from a CD.

Surround sound for the cinema – and the home

In 1977, Ray Dolby and his family moved to San Francisco, where the company is still headquartered, and 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.

Indeed, many home cinema enthusiasts started their obsession with a VHS cassette recorder, and a Dolby Surround (or later Dolby Pro-Logic) processor or receiver.

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.

Incidentally, 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 Lisztomania 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.

Batman Returns – in Dolby Digital

Summer 1992 saw the arrival of Dolby Digital surround in cinemas 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 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.

For now, that’s the state of the art in home cinema technology, but 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.

The first installation of the system was (unsurprisingly) in the Dolby Theatre, but 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…!

A great 19th century engineer

All of which isn’t bad going for someone whose main passions weren’t actually to do with electronics. In tributes to him, his family remembers overland drives from India, Dolby piloting planes across the Atlantic, and road trips to national parks, while 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 travelling to many parts of the world.

‘Inventions were part of my life, but they didn’t overtake everything that I was doing.’

Dr Dolby and his wife Dagmar supported numerous causes, and two centres of science, research and patient care – the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of San Francisco’s Stem Cell Center and the Brain Health Center at California Pacific Medical Center – were opened in recent years thanks to their support.

Ray Dolby died at his home in San Francisco on September 12, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for some years, and having been diagnosed with acute leukaemia two months ago.

He’s survived by his wife of 47 years, whom he met when they were both students at Cambridge, 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.’

Born January 18, 1933; died September 12, 2013

Andrew Everard

Watch a video about Ray Dolby below:

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