A bad recording of Indian sitar music gave him revolutionary ideas
RAY MILTON DOLBY (O 1933)
At the end of 1963, aged 30, the American engineer Ray Dolby traveled through India on behalf of UNESCO to record sitar music in the ashrams. He was annoyed with the quality of the recordings, with a constant soft murmur.
On his return to England in May 1965, he set up a small firm (four employees) in London to develop a noise reduction system. In November he was able to give a demonstration to the record company Decca Records.
In January 1966, Decca bought its first nine aircraft. Dolby was 'on its way'. Now his name, or his company's double-d logo, is on almost every tape recorder, ghetto blaster, headset and car radio—not to mention billions of audio cassettes.
Since 1975, 35,000 cinemas worldwide have been equipped with Dolby stereo systems. Ray Dolby was not only a passionate inventor, but also a shrewd businessman.
Ray Milton Dolby was born on January 18, 1933 in Portland, Oregon. As a child he wanted to know how everything worked. At 11, he repaired the valves on his father's old Plymouth car. He played piano and switched to trumpet and clarinet.
He loved music, but also wanted to know why things sounded the way they did. How an organ worked and how the pipes vibrated and produced their different sounds.
While he was still in high school, Alexander Poniatoff, the founder of the electronics company Ampex, took him under his wing. Dolby subsequently studied at Stanford University, the cradle of the American computer industry.
In his spare time, however, he could always be found at Ampex. In the early 1950s, he was part of a six-person team that was tasked with developing a video recorder. The management was shown a prototype in 1955, in 1957 the machine – still the size of half a wardrobe – was ready.
The input of 22-year-old Dolby was considered fundamental. He graduated from Stanford in 1957 and then obtained his doctorate in Cambridge, where he also met his German wife, Dagmar Baumert.
After the Unesco adventure in India, the real work followed. The quick purchase of the record company Decca gave me courage. Ray Dolby: 'I thought, with such a device I will be welcomed with open arms. People will be so happy that I solved the noise problem.
It was a cold shower to experience chief engineers at recording studios bluntly telling me that they don't have any
had a noise problem.' Nevertheless, by the end of 1969 all pop music studios in London were equipped with Dolby systems. Those first devices were only given a technical name.
One day as Ray was in the elevator on his way to a record company, he overheard two engineers talking about moving "two more Dolbys" that day. His surname was used as a trademark without his knowledge.
He would continue to play that trump card. In the late 1960s, he opened a sales center in New York. Five years later, he moved to San Francisco with family and staff.
The story circulates about Ray that at the time he reported to his closest associates saying, "Dagmar and I are going back to California, San Francisco, and you're coming with me."
From 1970, Dolby and his wife set out to sell licenses to American, European and Japanese manufacturers of tape recorder and sound equipment. This is how 'Dolby' came into the hands of the ordinary consumer.
The big question was: how do you turn an invention that is relatively easy to imitate into a standard without losing the ownership rights to it.
Dolby was aware of how Ampex's video recorder was doing. "Ampex spent all its time in a hopeless legal battle to keep the technology for itself," he said.
"I foresaw that I would end up in the same misery if I made my system exclusive." Dolby came up with a genius solution. He controlled patents and trademarks very strictly, but he sold them at an extremely low price.
The lowest margin at one point was 7.5 cents per tape recorder. "It was clear to me from the start that a small amount from a large market was better than the reverse," Dolby said later. "If it was cheaper for a manufacturer to buy our license than to copy us, why wouldn't he choose the Dolby technology?"
Dolby: 'When I founded my company, one of the bigger plans was to improve film sound. But I had to wait until 1970 before my company was strong enough to hire engineers for it. The first Dolby mono film was Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in 1971.
Stereo followed in 1973-1974; Dolby Stereo Surround, with four sound channels, in 1975 with Barbara Streisand's film A Star is Born. The 'Surround' in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind also made the general public aware of what Dolby meant.
Cinema owners had to follow. Star Wars was also the first in a series of films to receive an Oscar for their Dolby technology. Some others include: The Deerhunter, Amadeus, Dances With Wolves, and Jurassic Park.
In 1976, Dolby even established an office in Hollywood, where engineers from the firm oversee the mixing of the films. The company continued to develop and innovate continuously. Ray: 'What I do is comparable to improving the image in the cinema.
You enlarge the image of such a small negative enormously and you want better color, more sharpness, less grain. The same goes for sound.'
One of the spectacular innovations today is digital sound transmission for cinema films. Since 1992, more than four thousand films have been released with this system. Besides image and sound, there is not much space left on a traditional film tape.
Dolby still found a place to accommodate the digital information, namely between the tooth holes of the film. This system is also quickly becoming a standard.
You can play the new film tapes in both traditional and advanced cinemas and that is the trump card with which Dolby has beaten the competition. The latest development outside the cinema is Dolby Surround for television: cinema sound for the living room.
Dolby Laboratories, with headquarters in London and San Francisco, has barely 300 employees. The company is almost
conclusive laboratory research, trades in licenses and monitors its application. As far as equipment is concerned, it only makes equipment for the radio, film and music industry. Dolby has 313 licensees in 48 countries and 650 patents in 34 countries.
"Concern is the key to my success," says Ray Dolby. "That's the difference between an engineer, who generally knows how to approach and solve a problem, and an inventor, who wakes up at night drenched in cold sweat for fear that his plan will fail." Dolby itself owns more than fifty patents.
His first dates back to when he was 19. He also has a private laboratory in which he works on his own projects.
When he wanted to travel with his wife and two sons in a stray car in 1988, he developed a steering mechanism that enables the tired driver to steer while standing. The quiet, somewhat withdrawn Dolby, nicknamed Dr. Silence, still owns his company alone.
A heart attack a few years ago did not destroy his entrepreneurial spirit. His new passion is flying. Meanwhile, his engineers are studying the many possibilities that the new information highway Dolby Laboratories has to offer.