Sound Decisions

Ray Dolby’s experiments in India changed the way consumers experience audio

Five bucks and a free meal; that’s all it took to launch the career of one of the entertainment world’s greatest technological minds.

Ray Dolby is one of few high-tech inventors to become a household name. Most of the non-technical world learned of him when Dolby Stereo arrived in movie theaters and the Dolby Surround Sound of Star Wars captured the nation’s ears—and attention. But to the technical world, he has been a force since the mid ’60s, when Dolby Sound became the gold standard. For his work in audio, he is one of the recipients of this year’s Technology Leadership Awards.

Born in 1933, Dolby was always been interested in sound and the machinery of entertainment, whether studying the vibrating reeds on his clarinet or plotting a career as a Hollywood cameraman.

In high school, he volunteered as audio-visual technician and was hanging out by the equipment one day when a man walked in offered $5 and dinner for anyone willing to serve as projectionist at a charity event.

Dolby jumped at the chance, not even realizing that the man was Alex Poniatoff, one of the driving forces behind Ampex, which, among other things, was the company that subsequently invented the first practical videotape recorder. (Dolby worked on it.)

He worked after school for Ampex. By his senior year, he was a top manager. He continued with Ampex during his college and Army days.

With an electrical-engineering degree from Stanford University, Dolby spent six years in England and earned a PhD in physics.

In 1963, he went to India on a United Nations-sponsored tour. While there, he recorded native music and perfected a way to reduce tape hiss in the recording process—the surface sound many people mistakenly attributed to the surface of vinyl LPs instead of to actual noise from the master tape. He realized he could eliminate the hiss by separating recorded sound into two channels, one loud and one soft, to strip away unwanted tape noise while maintaining a recording’s clarity.

Two years later, he delivered his first noise-reduction system to Decca Records, and his role in the history of sound as the founder of Dolby Laboratories was about to become firmly established.

“To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope toward an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer,” Dolby once told Stanford magazine. “That may be something that distinguishes inventors from engineers.

“I don’t think I’m especially bright or talented,” he added, crediting his 50-plus patents and endless awards and honors to diligence. “But I do have stick-to-itiveness, bullheadedness, nose-to-the-grindstoneness when it’s necessary, along with versatility and a willingness to stay up late and not get much sleep.”

Eventually nearly every audio manufacturer adopted Dolby’s system. In 1983, Dolby turned over the presidency to Bill Jasper but remains chairman. The arrangement gave him time to invent his future.

Dolby Laboratories’ analog focus led to a brief stumble at the start of the digital age, but the company soon caught up to re-establish itself as the technological leader in sound.

In 2005, Dolby took the company public (he plowed some of his new wealth into a $16 million donation for stem-cell research). By that time, Dolby technology had found its way into consumer-electronics products from car stereos to high-definition TVs.

“It’s difficult to think about digital sound without thinking about Ray Dolby and the company he founded, Dolby Laboratories,” says Mark S. Richer, president of Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and a fellow Tech Leadership Award winner this year. “The standardization of Dolby AC-3 technology by ATSC in November of 1994 was a major achievement that allowed the industry to bring high-quality digital sound to the home.”

Today, Dolby Laboratories is integrating its audio technology into Dolby TrueHD audio—which delivers hi-def sound for optical media and video-on-demand services—and into a series of other audio products.

“Ray is an inspiration for his innovations as well as his forward thinking as a businessman in the entertainment-technology industry,” says Tim Partridge, senior VP/general manager of the Professional Division at Dolby

Adds John Taylor, VP, LG Electronics USA, “Ray Dolby and his company transformed the digital landscape. Dolby Digital has become an important part of the HDTV experience.”