You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Features
Business Standard

Dolby, the man, fades out

Natasha Singer 

Ray Dolby, the sound pioneer who founded Dolby Laboratories, revolutionised the recording industry with the invention of the Dolby noise-reduction system, and transformed cinema and home entertainment with the development of Dolby digital surround sound, died on Thursday at his home in San Francisco. He was 80.

He developed Alzheimer's disease several years ago and last July received a diagnosis of acute leukemia, according to a company statement.

Film industry executives credit Dolby with developing sophisticated technologies that enabled directors like Steven Spielberg to endow sound with the same emotional intensity as pictures. "In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the sound of the spaceship knocked the audience on its rear with the emotional content," says Sidney Ganis, a film producer who is a former president of Paramount Pictures and a former president of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "That was created by the director, but provided by the technology that Ray Dolby invented."

Over the course of Dolby's career, the Dolby name became synonymous with high fidelity. For his pioneering contributions to audio engineering, Dolby received an Oscar, several Emmy Awards and a Grammy. He was also awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Clinton and was appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Trained in engineering and physics, Dolby started Dolby Laboratories in London in 1965 and soon after introduced technology that produced cleaner, crisper sound by electronically reducing the hiss generated by analog tape recording.

Decca Records was the first customer to buy the Dolby System. The noise-reduction technology quickly became a staple of major record labels.

By the 1970s, film studios began adopting the system as well. It was first used in 1971 in A Clockwork Orange. In the 1980s, the company introduced its digital surround sound technology into home entertainment.

Dolby was born on January 18, 1933, in Portland, Oregon, the son of Earl Dolby, a salesman, and Esther Dolby. He was interested in how sound worked from a young age and took clarinet lessons. As a teenager, he met Alexander Poniatoff, a Russian emigre and electrical engineer who had started an electronics company called Ampex that made tape recorders. Dolby worked at Ampex from 1949 to 1957 where, among other projects, he developed the electronic components of the company's videotape recording system.

Dolby graduated from Stanford University in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. That year, he left Ampex to pursue graduate studies at Cambridge University in Britain on a Marshall Scholarship and a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He received a postdoctoral degree in physics from Cambridge in 1961. While at Cambridge, he met a summer student named Dagmar Bäumert whom he later married.

In 1963, Dolby travelled to India as an advisor to the United Nations, returning two years later to England where he founded Dolby Laboratories. In 1976, he moved to San Francisco where the company still has its headquarters. The next year, the company gained wider renown after the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which each used Dolby Stereo, a system for recording films in multichannel sound. In the 1980s, Dolby Labs introduced surround sound technology in television, compact discs, and laser discs.

Dolby served as chairman of the Dolby board from 1965 until 2009, retiring from the board in 2011. He is survived by his wife, Dagmar; two sons, Tom Dolby of Manhattan and David Dolby of San Francisco; and four grandchildren.


©2013 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, September 13 2013. 21:33 IST
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU