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Ray Milton Dolby OBE - 1933-2013

Pioneer of the way we hear
Mon Sep 16 2013, 17:23

RAY DOLBY OBE, audio guru and inventor of the noise reduction system that bears his name, has died aged 80.

Born in Oregon in 1933, Dolby's lifelong love of technology began with summer jobs at Ampex in Silicon Valley during his student years. During that time he worked with the first magnetic tape recorders and during his university studies worked as consultant on the prototype of the first video recorder.

Dolby attended Cambridge University and, after a spell of working as a technical advisor to the United Nations, settled in the UK, founding Dolby Laboratories in 1965. Within the company's first year it had created perhaps his most most famous innovation, the Dolby Noise Reduction System (Dolby NR). First used by Decca Records in 1968, the system works by compressing high frequency sounds in recording but expanding them on playback, which serves to reduce the tape hiss that is the bane of cassette tape listeners - a fact to which any user of a Sony Walkman will attest.

But that was just the beginning. In 1982 Dolby launched Surround Sound, to the marvel of VHS and Betamax owners, as it revolutionised the home movie market. The term "surround sound" was something of a misnomer, as the sound was mixed down to two channels, but in some ways that made the achievement of 'virtual' surround sound even more remarkable.

In 1986 Dolby Spectral Recording (SR) became the gold standard for movie sound through the 1990s and into the 21st century, overtaken only by the widespread adoption of digital formats for film. Even today, products like Dolby Pro Logic and Dolby Digital still proliferate in the home market, allowing our Blu-ray players, games consoles and HD televisions to sound as good as they do. In time the technology will be superseded as pure digital formats become commonplace, but there is no question about what a phenomenal impact these products have had on our modern lives.

After having retired in San Francisco, California some years ago, Ray Dolby contracted leukaemia and died on 12 September 2013.

It's hard to overstate the influence that this unsung audio hero has had on our everyday lives. Every time you watch a movie or listen to a record, you are hearing the results of Dolby's labours. It's to the credit of his legacy that this backroom boffin who had so much influence on the worlds of music, film and technology will have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as a lasting tribute to his importance. 

The INQUIRER spoke to Thomas Dolby Robertson, musician and producer, and former musical director of TED, who in perhaps the ultimate accolade, adopted the Dolby moniker for his own, "Ray Dolby was the most recent in a sparse but revered list of inventors whose name became synonymous with something audible - Bell, Theremin, Moog, Foley, Simmons, etc.

"The mystique of the 'double D' logo and that curious button, loomed even larger than the technology itself, as did the concept of Dolby Surround. So as well as being an audio innovator, he was a brilliant marketer: he created an unassailable global brand that spanned five decades."

As for The INQUIRER, we'd like to invite you to join us in a moment of noise reduction in his honour. µ


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