Ray Dolby: Inventor whose noise-reduction technology transformed sound reproduction

The first Dolby filter cost £700, around £11,000 today; he soon began working on a home model

Marcus Williamson
Friday 13 September 2013 18:04 BST
Dolby at work; by the 1970s his Dolby B filter was standard in all self-respecting cassette players
Dolby at work; by the 1970s his Dolby B filter was standard in all self-respecting cassette players

Ray Dolby was the inventor whose name has become synonymous with high fidelity sound in music and film. He was the creator of the Dolby Noise Reduction system, a method for reducing background hiss on tape recordings, which was installed on virtually every hi-fi cassette player from the 1970s to the 1990s. In the 1970s his company invented the Dolby Stereo sound system for cinema. Then, in the digital era, the name has remained prominent with technology such as Dolby Home Theater and Dolby Digital.

Ray Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon in 1933 and grew up in the San Francisco area. On leaving school, aged 16, he joined Ampex Corporation, a company specialising in tape recording systems, where he worked on the development of video technology. In 1957 he received a BS in electrical engineering from Stanford University. This was followed four years later by a doctorate from Cambridge, following a move to the UK. In 1965 Dolby established his company, Dolby Laboratories, in London, with a staff of four people. He served as chairman for more than 40 years.

During the summer of that year he created the invention which would make his name and early fortune. The problem he was solving, and its solution, was relatively straightforward: Dolby observed that the background hiss of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes was particularly noticeable in the quiet passages. As he wrote in an early paper on the issue which he sought to overcome, “...recording an instrument such as a piano or violin does not usefully load the tape over the whole audio spectrum, and thus high frequency noises are noticeable during reproduction.”

His invention, in the form of an electronic filter, manipulated the sound during the recording process, boosting the level of quiet, high-pitched sections of music. When the tape is played back the process is reversed, which has the effect of significantly reducing the sound of hiss on the tape.

The first sale of the “Dolby A” equipment was to Decca Records in London. The company released their debut recording which had been mastered on to tape using the new system, a session of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Mozart piano concertos, in 1966. Paul Moseley, Managing Director of Decca Classics, told The Independent “Decca is proud to have played a part in helping Ray Dolby develop his pioneering noise-reduction systems. Decca engineers helped test and refine the prototype of the now-legendary ‘Dolby A’ professional noise reduction in the mid-1960s. This can truly be said to have revolutionised the recording industry across all types of music and film and transform perceptions of high fidelity throughout the world.”

But the new Dolby component cost £700 (the equivalent of £11,000 today) and so was only suited to professional recording studios. Ray Dolby set about developing a less complex, and therefore less costly, filtering system adapted for domestic use, which he termed “Dolby B”. The first tape recorder for home use equipped with Dolby B was the KLH Model 40, released in June 1968. Two years later a number of audio equipment manufacturers had incorporated the technology into their cassette decks and by the late 1970s it was standard fitting on virtually all hi-fi cassette systems.

The success of his invention in music recording prompted Dolby to examine the possibilities of its use in improving sound for cinema. At the same time, a new headquarters was established in California in 1976, bringing the company closer to the heart of America’s film industry. In 1977 the company’s Dolby Stereo system was used for the production of the Star Wars films and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sidney Ganis, a film producer and former president of Paramount Pictures, said, “In Close Encounters of the Third Kind the sound of the spaceship knocked the audience on its rear with the emotional content. That was created by the director, but provided by the technology that Ray Dolby invented.” Dolby and his team won an Oscar the following year in recognition of their “Development and implementation of an improved sound recording and reproducing system for motion picture production and exhibition.”

The sound designer, Ben Burtt, said of Dolby’s work in the world of cinema: “Here we have a scientist who invents tools for the artist and so you get the two important cornerstones of entertainment, which are science and creativity. Imagination, that may not be governed by science, couples with the scientist Ray Dolby and the result is a whole new frontier is opened...” Dolby himself said of his motivation, “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.”

Through its ubiquity and use in film the word “Dolby” became a household name, to the extent that it was even used in comedy, such as the classic “Hi-Fi Shop” sketch in a 1980s episode of Not the Nine O’Clock News. With the advent of digital recording and compact discs in the mid 1980s, the need for noise reduction declined and the company successfully concentrated its efforts on the development of sound systems for cinema. Kevin Yeaman, chief executive of Dolby Laboratories, said: “Ray Dolby founded the company based on a commitment to creating value through innovation and an impassioned belief that if you invested in people and gave them the tools for success, they would create great things. Ray’s ideals will continue to be a source of inspiration and motivation for us all.”

Ray Milton Dolby, sound engineer and inventor: born Portland, Oregon 18 January 1933; married 1966 Dagmar Baumert (two sons); Hon OBE 1986; died San Francisco 12 September 2013.

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