Inventor who transformed cinema sound;
Born: January 18, 1933; Died: September 12, 2013
Ray Dolby, who has died aged 80, was an inventor whose audio technology transformed the sound of music and cinema in the 1970s. Until then, hiss was a constant problem but Mr Dolby's eponymous system, with its famous logo of two Ds sitting back to back, solved the problem and instantly brought movie soundtracks to another level. It was most famously used on Star Wars in 1977 and then quickly became the standard in Hollywood and the music industry. The Dolby system earned its inventor a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and a fortune of around $2.4 billion.
Ray Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, the son of real estate salesman Earl Dolby and his wife Esther. From a young age, he was obsessed with technology, invention and music and sometimes wished he had been born in the previous century when there was so much more to invent.
"All my life, I've loved everything that goes," he said. "Bicycles, motorcycles, cars, Jeeps, boats, sail or power, airplanes, helicopters. I love all of these things and regret that I was born in a time when most of those mechanical problems had already been solved and what remained were electronic problems."
It was in San Francisco, where the family moved when Ray was young, that he began to develop his technological skills and it was there he was spotted by Alex Poniatoff, the founder of the recording and video company Ampex, and offered a job. Mr Poniatoff had gone to Mr Dolby's high school to give a talk and the young inventor offered to be his projectionist. Poniatoff could see straight away that the boy was talented and offered him a job. From then on, the young Ray did three days at school and the rest of the time at Ampex, working on videotape recording systems.
He eventually left Ampex in the 1950s to study electrical engineering at Stanford and from there went to Cambridge to study for a Phd. Later, he went to India, where he worked for two years as a science adviser with Unesco.
It was while he was in India, recording local musicians, that he turned his mind to audio technology and in particular how to improve sound quality. When he returned to the UK, he filed a patent for his system, which worked by separating high and low frequencies. "It increases the desired tones," he said, "suppresses hiss and recombines the cleaned frequencies into very high fidelity sound."
Decca Records ordered the first nine units at £700 each and quickly Dolby A-301 was the standard for reducing noise. In 1976, Mr Dolby moved his young firm to the US where Hollywood took notice. After Star Wars, it was widely installed; it also transformed the music cassette business.
Mr Dolby's colleagues described him as inspiring and thoughtful man, who cared passionately about engineering. "To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in the darkness and grope toward an answer, to put up with the anxiety about whether there is an answer," he once said. But it was always music that was his main passion. "I was fascinated by the technology of music," he said. "How organs worked, how reeds vibrated, why things sounded the way they did."
Mr Dolby's technologies are still used in the movie and music industry today including Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. The company also developed the Atmos system which allows sounds to come out of individual speakers, giving the impression that music or sound effects are in different parts of the cinema.
Kevin Yeaman, president and chief executive of Dolby Laboratories, said Mr Dolby had invented an entire industry around delivering an experience in sound. "We lost a friend, mentor and true visionary," Mr Yeaman said.
Mr Dolby held 50 US patents and won a number of notable awards for his life's work, including several Emmys, two Oscars and a Grammy.
He was awarded the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the US and the Royal Academy of Engineers in the UK, among other honours. Last year the theatre that serves as home to the Academy Awards was renamed the Dolby Theatre and the Ray Dolby Ballroom was named in his honour.
"Ray really managed to have a dream job," said Dagmar Dolby, his wife of 47 years. "Because he could do exactly what he wanted to do, whichever way he wanted to do it, and in the process, did a lot of good for many music and film lovers. And in the end, built a very successful company."
Mr Dolby and his wife were active in philanthropy and supported numerous causes and organisations. The Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California, San Francisco's Stem Cell Centre and the Brain Health Centre at California Pacific Medical Centre were opened with their support.
His family described Mr Dolby as generous, patient, curious and fair. "Though he was an engineer at heart, my father's achievements in technology grew out of a love of music and the arts," said Tom Dolby, a film-maker and novelist.
"He brought his appreciation of the artistic process to all of his work in film and audio recording."
He is survived by his wife, sons Tom and David, and four grandchildren.
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