Ray Dolby: An Appreciation

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2012 file photo, from left, honoree Ray Dolby, presenter Walter Murch and son David Dolby speak during the 2012 Hollywood Post Alliance awards at the Skirball Center, in Los Angeles. Dolby Laboratories said Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, that Dolby, an American inventor, audio pioneer, and founder of the company, died in his home in San Francisco. He was 80. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Invision/AP, File)

By now you’ve probably heard that Ray Dolby died last week at 80.

 So renowned for “Blinding Me with Science” innovations that a musician (the former Thomas Robertson) nicked the guy’s family name for his stage persona, Dolby was in on the ground floor of  video tape recording technology at Ampex. Then he came into his own as the engineering wiz who commercialized noise reduction -  making the hiss go away  on  audio tape recordings, making  all the film projector rattle and roar disappear in movie presentations with  various forms of Dolby Noise Reduction.

Later, Dolby  also upped the movie-going experience with surround sound, previously available only on exotic wide format (65 and 70 mm) film extravaganzas, with his varieties on the theme of Dolby Stereo (an odd choice of name for a four channel format, but whatever)  then  more elaborate 5.1 and  7.1 channel varieties of Dolby Surround, also widely popularized in home theater products.

Some obits have argued that Dolby was a product of the analog audio age, that his hiss reduction technology - widely used in analog cassette tapes - became irrelevant in the digital age of CDs and beyond. But the case could be made that his biggest accomplishment -  challenging conventional purist thinking about how audio recordings MUST be made -  opened up audio and video engineers to tinkering with the process and helped spark the digital revolution.

Dolby’s noise reduction worked by boosting  certain frequencies in the tape recording process, then reversing the process at the other end with a de-emphasis circuit in a movie projector or tape player. While a less than exact science in the consumer version (Dolby B) used on analog cassettes, the GENERAL improvement was pleasing and got other techies thinking about ways to achieve a GREATER GOOD  in the digital era. The first biggie was  MP3,  a  highly efficient  (and controversial) way for encoding sound, which emphasizes the frequencies people hear most easily while eliminating those sounds only “golden ears” detect.   Without that and later,  more efficient/better compression techniques,  we wouldn’t be able to download tracks from iTunes or Rhapsody in a few seconds, or smoothly stream  good sounding music and videos live from a gazillion websites.

Mr. Dolby’s  first  “matrixed”  technique for delivering surround sound – hiding additional  channels (later filtered out) inside the core two – also was a compromise.  Did it matter that the back channel(s) only had a limited frequency range? Nah, his tech made stuff blow up really good,  scared the bejabbers out of viewers  with  breakthroughs like “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  

One also might argue that Ray Dolby revolutionized popular thinking on how innovators make money with technology.  He didn’t own any factories, crank out products, per se. He owned patents, made his money with licensing his ideas and circuit designs. While he might have only made a penny or two on a cassette tape encoded with Dolby B NR, or a few cents for DVD or Blu-ray disc encoded with Dolby Surround, such micro-transactions made a multi-billionaire, one of the 400 richest men in America. It was all about the “apps” for Ray Dolby, before anyone ever started using that word.