Billionaire Sound Pioneer Ray Dolby passes away

  • Father Of Modern Noise Reduction
  • With a fortune of $2.4 billion at his death, Dolby truly did make silence golden.
  • Dolby’s creation, released in 1966, produced a cleaner, crisper sound for recording studios and record labels and considerably reduced the hiss or hum associated with sound recordings until then.
  • The system used a method of emphasis – pre-emphasis and de-emphasis – to reduce tape noise and noticeably improve the recording and playback process.
  • He also created some of the first surround-sound systems, which resulted in 5.1 and 7.1 sound for theaters and homes.

Ray Dolby, creator of the Dolby noise-reduction system that revolutionized recordingRay Dolby, the pioneer of noise reduction on music and cinema recordings, has died aged 80. Dolby built a billion-dollar business from improving sound quality in the film and music industries.

Dolby left behind a legacy that is etched in the annals of the audio and film industry, changing the face of studio recording, and blazing a path for high fidelity and surround sound in both movie theaters and the home that is still being followed today.

His name became synonymous with surround sound systems and he won many awards for his work. He died at home on Sept 12, 2013 in San Francisco. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease in recent years and acute leukemia since July.

He founded his namesake Dolby Laboratories DLB +2.41% in 1965. His work revolutionizing the immersive experience of movie theater sound started with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in 1971 and matured with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977.

Over the years Dolby earned 50 patents, two Oscars, multiple Emmys and a Grammy.

He first entered the billionaire ranks in 2005 when Dolby Laboratories went public. The company’s revenues last year were in excess of $900 million. Last year it issued a special dividend to shareholders. Dolby, with more than 56 million shares got $200 million.

With his death, Dagmar, Dolby’s wife of 47 years, assumes his fortune and place on the Forbes 400 list. They have two sons Tom and David. (Of no relation is the musician Thomas Dolby, who recorded the hit “She Blinded Me With Science.”)

Dolby began his career in England but finished it in the Bay Area where his company spearheaded further initiatives in sound quality and surround sound techniques. Dolby, in short, is synonymous with good sound. His pioneering spirit and efforts at making the status quo far better than anyone thought possible. Then, by intelligently branding his system he cornered the market in high quality sound, making his ideas a household name and his brand, in a word, legendary.

Though Dolby retired several years ago, his company has continued to make innovations, with the new Dolby Atmos system using 64 speakers — with some sounds programmed to come out of just one speaker. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was one of the first to use the new system.

At a ceremony honoring Dolby last year film editor Walter Murch said, “you could divide film sound in half: there is BD, Before Dolby, and there is AD, After Dolby.”

Dolby had donated more than $35 million to fund stem cell research at the University of California. He is the second billionaire sound engineer to die this year. Loudspeaker innovator Amar Bose died in July; Fritz Sennheiser passed in 2010.

The Dolby Laboratories website posted a tribute to its founder yesterday, including these quotes from Dolby summing up the passion of inventing and the meaning of success.

On Inventing:

“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 traveling to many parts of the world. Inventions were part of my life, but they didn’t overtake everything that I was doing.”

“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.”

On Success:

“I was never a gold-digger, or an Oscar-digger, or anything like that. I just had an instinct about the right sort of things that should be done in my business. So all these things just fell into place.”

“I think I was both lucky and I was also straightforward with people, and I think they liked that attitude.”

“There is no major next step. It’s a matter of constantly being aware of one’s environment, of keeping track of what’s happening in the various industries that we’re operating in and just sort of sensing what’s possible and what’s not possible, what’s needed, what’s not needed-just having all your antennae going, sensitized to all the signals that are out there.”

His son novelist Tom said: “Though he was an engineer at heart, my father’s achievements in technology grew out of a love of music and the arts. “He brought his appreciation of the artistic process to all of his work in film and audio recording.”

His other son David, a member of the board of directors at Dolby Laboratories, added: ““My father was a thoughtful, patient and loving man, determined to always do the right thing in business, philanthropy, and as a husband and father. “Our family is very proud of his achievements and leadership. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy of innovation will live on.”

Neil Portnow, head of the Recording Academy, which hands out Grammys, said Mr Dolby “changed the way we listen to music and movies”.

His Life:

Dolby was born in Portland, Ore in 1933. He first became fascinated with sound when studying the vibrations of his clarinet reeds as a child. At 16 he started work at Ampex, a videotape recording company. After studying electrical engineering at Stanford he earned a PhD in physics from Cambridge in 1961 and even consulted to the U.K.’s Atomic Energy Authority. After two years as a United Nations advisor in India he founded Dolby Laboratories in London, later moving to San Francisco.

He used the company’s machines to record musicians in his home and found that the noise and hiss bothered him to no end. Using an electronic filter he was able to reduce hiss at any tape speed. He went on to create multi-channel audio for the film industry and add surround-sound to optical media in the 1980s for home use.

Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up around San Francisco. Dolby began his career developing a video recording system in the 1950s. He came to Britain to study for a PhD at Cambridge and founded Dolby Laboratories in London in 1965 which he then moved to California in 1976.
He was given an Oscar in 1989 with Dolby boss Ioan Allen for contributions to cinema.
Dolby also got a Grammy in 1995 and TV Emmys in 1989 and 2005.

He is survived by wife Dagmar and two sons.

His successes

The launching pad for Dr. Dolby’s remarkable career was crafted from the same catalyst as that of most great innovators: a problem. In Dolby’s case, the problem was tape hiss.

Dolby spent his early years working intimately with tape recording prototypes as a consultant with Ampex, while also pursuing his B.S. in electrical engineering from Stanford. After receiving a PhD in physics from Cambridge University in 1961, he worked as a technical advisor to the United Nations in India. He returned to England in 1965, and decided to put his vast knowledge of audio technology to work by founding Dolby Laboratories that same year. By 1966, he had laid the groundwork for success by creating his historic noise reduction system, Dolby NR.

Dolby NR uses sonic principals to compress tape hiss at higher frequencies, which allowed for an unprecedented level of fidelity in tape recording and playback to be achieved. The process spawned several variations, including the Dolby B system for consumer use, and Dolby SR, which transformed the film industry with its vividly clear sound, making an impressive debut in the Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange.

From there, the successes kept piling up. Dolby Laboratories’ noise reduction technology was adopted in nearly every facet of the audio industry, and the later invention of Dolby Stereo laid the groundwork for modern surround sound, helping to transform big budget films into visceral experiences. Dr. Dolby received over 50 U.S. patents in his tenure, and for his efforts was presented with several awards throughout his career, including an Oscar, a Grammy, and the National Medal for Technology and Innovation from President Clinton.

Ray Dolby’s legacy continues today in the digital world, with Dolby Laboratories’ ongoing innovations in the fields of professional and consumer digital sound. We will remember the man for his immeasurable impact on the entertainment industry, changing the idea of what recorded audio could be, and forever altering the world of sound.

Roots of sound pioneer Ray Dolby’s India links

After undergraduate education, Dolby moved to Stanford for his Master’s Degree in 1957 and then to the University of Cambridge for his PhD in Physics in 1961.

He took the unusual step of working for the United Nations for the next couple of years and that brought him to India for a UNESCO assignment in New Delhi. He had to record several pieces of Indian music (both classical and folklore) and for this, he went to several ashrams in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Those were the days of analogue audio recording — both spool and cassette type. Dolby would carry loads of audiotapes and got frustrated when he found that concerts of amazing quality he had personally listened to were terrible on recorded tape, primarily due to the “hissing” noise created by the sitar and veena and the ceiling fan noise. His genius converted the challenge into an opportunity.

By “amplifying low-level high-frequency sounds during recording, and cutting them out during playback, Dolby Laboratories managed to produce much better sound in audio cassettes. ‘Dolby’ became synonymous with high-quality audio. After his India assignment, he went back to Cambridge and with an initial savings of $25,000 started the company in 1965. The company moved to the US in 1976, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dolby Laboratories started with its first product Dolby 301 with Type A Dolby Noise Reduction. Over the years, the company created products for stereo and surround sound, embraced the digital world and pioneered high-quality sound for thousands of movies, including ‘Star Trek’. Recently, it addressed the need for high-quality sound in mobile handsets and smartphones.

By following an unusual business model of directly making professional-grade audio equipment, and only licensing its technology for consumer equipment and by capitalizing its intellectual property through dozens of patents (Dolby alone had more than 50 patents) yet charging very low royalty, Dolby Sound touches more than 7.2 billion consumers today. Dolby Systems has won several Emmy, Grammy and Oscar awards.

An inspiring engineer, amazing products and an admirable corporation, thy name is Dolby.

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