Ray Dolby: He Made Everything Sound Better

In the 1970s, “Dolby” was that button on your cassette deck that you pressed to magically eliminate static hiss that could easily mar the beauty of, say, Jimmy Page’s guitar solos on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy.

Dolby (left) being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004

Dolby (left) being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004.

Of course, the noise-reduction technology pioneered by inventor Ray Dolby, who died on Sept. 12 at age 80 in San Francisco, did much more than that. Sound-improving innovations developed by his Dolby Labs have found their way into an estimated 7.4 billion consumer electronics products, from car stereos to televisions.

But Dolby’s greatest impact may have been on the motion picture industry. Dolby technology enabled filmmakers to create vivid soundtracks that could be played at high volumes in theaters, turning movie-watching into an intense multisensory experience.

Here are some intriguing facts about Dolby and the aural revolution in sound he helped to create:

  • Playing the clarinet as a youth, Dolby was fascinated with the way that clarinet reeds vibrated to produce sound.
  • He was the student movie projectionist at his high school in Redwood City, Calif.
  • He began working for Ampex Corp. on tape-recorder technology while he was still in high school. “I was so far ahead in my credits that I didn’t have to worry about getting into college,” he once explained, “so I went to school three hours a day and worked five at Ampex.”
  • While at Ampex, Dolby was a co-inventor of video tape recording.
  • Before founding Dolby Labs in 1965, he worked for two years as a United Nations adviser in India.
  • One of the first movies to exploit Dolby technology was Star Wars, in 1977. Director George Lucas says it “played a pivotal role in allowing Star Wars to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be.”
  • Dolby was an adviser in the redesign of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in the mid-1980s. “I asked him if he would help us,”  former San Francisco Symphony CEO Nancy Bechtle recalled. “He said he didn’t know a lot about natural acoustics, only electronic acoustics. We had these endless meetings, and he would always ask the right questions of the acousticians, protecting us from making a mistake. When the hall reopened, the acoustics were perfect, and he wouldn’t take any of the credit.”

 

From the Archive of American Television, here’s a video interview with Dolby, in which he explains how his noise-reduction system worked.

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