Thursday 19 October 2017

Surround-sound inventor who amazed world's cinema-goers

Ray Dolby, who has died aged 80, introduced the noise-reducing and surround-sound technology that revolutionised cinema acoustics.

His system of using multiple loudspeakers and multi-channel technology – first through his Dolby Stereo, introduced in 1975, and later through Dolby digital surround sound – set new acoustic standards in big-screen entertainment and made him a fortune, estimated last year at $2.4bn (€1.8bn).

Film-makers had sought since the 1950s to improve the clarity and realism of cinema sound, but it was Dolby, who set up his company in Britain in 1965 before returning to his native America, who made the breakthrough.

Beginning in the 1960s with Dolby noise reduction – a form of audio compression and expansion that reduces tape hiss – his company, Dolby Laboratories, went on to develop a host of groundbreaking technologies.

By the late 1970s, he was delivering surround-sound systems that amazed cinema-goers with their sheer volume, scale and all-enfolding sensation. A particular triumph came in 1977 when young director George Lucas used Dolby's latest sound system in Star Wars.

"Star Wars changed sound for ever," said Michael Minkler, who helped to mix the soundtrack.

At times, he explained, hundreds of tracks were playing in the mix, but without hundreds of tracks' worth of hiss and rumble.

By eliminating such problems, and introducing other enhancements, Dolby allowed film-makers to use more sophisticated multi-track, surround-sound audio to transport audiences into fantasy worlds. In another 1977 blockbuster, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg also turned to Dolby Stereo technology, investing the sound of the spaceship with the same emotional intensity as the pictures.

The son of a salesman, Ray Milton Dolby was born on January 18, 1933, in Portland, Oregon. His parents moved to California. Musical and insatiably curious as a child, he later attributed his success to an appetite for learning that was fostered by his parents. He was still at school when he started working part-time for the Ampex tape recorder company.

After military service in the army, he graduated in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in 1957 and moved to Britain, becoming in 1960 the first American to be elected a Fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He returned to Ampex as chief electronics designer for the first practical video recording system.

Phillips introduced pre-recorded cassette tapes in 1964, but the sound was of comparatively poor quality, mainly on account of the hiss. That year, Dolby was on detachment from Cambridge as a Unesco science adviser in India, and it was while working on noise-reduction systems there that he worked out how to eliminate tape hiss.

Returning to Britain in 1965, he founded his own audio company in London and established Dolby Laboratories. In 1966, Decca equipped their London recording studios with Dolby's noise-reduction system, which quickly became the industry standard.

The quality of cassettes improved rapidly during the 1970s, but by then Dolby had turned his attention to cinema. Not only did his noise reduction technology give film sound much greater clarity, it was also comparatively cheap.

Dolby received an Academy Award in 1989 for his "contribution to motion picture sound".

He died on September 12 and is survived by his wife, Dagmar Baumert, who he met at Cambridge in 1962, and their two sons.

Irish Independent

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