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Ray Dolby, the inventor and engineer whose surname became synonymous with high-quality cinema sound, died Sept. 12 at home in San Francisco at 80. “Today we lost a friend, mentor, and true visionary,” Kevin Yeaman, President and CEO of Dolby Laboratories, said in a statement. Dolby’s noise-reduction and other work earned him over 50 patents, Oscars, Emmys, honors from both the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, the Edison Medal (presented by President Clinton), the US National Medal of Technology, and membership in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the Royal Academy, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Forbes estimates his fortune to be at $2.3 billion. His victories over tape hiss are priceless to movie fans.
Born in Portland, Ore., Dolby went to school in the Bay Area and Cambridge, England, and began his innovations in 1949 at Ampex, where he helped create videotape recording. He founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965. Though he suffered recently from Alzheimer’s disease and leukemia, Dolby was cogent and visibly pleased when Hollywood Post Alliance honored him with the Charles S. Swartz Award last November at Skirball Center.
“If you take the big picture and step back and look at what we have done over generations,” said legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch at the ceremony, “you could divide film sound in half: there is BD, Before Dolby, and there is AD, After Dolby. I mixed my first film in 1969 [when] there was a stagnation in how film was being delivered to theaters. There was nothing fundamental that had changed in terms of optical soundtracks in over 30 years. The soundtracks I was delivering to theaters in 1969 were almost exactly the ones delivered in 1939. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, the very year, Ray was filing his first patent for Dolby Noise Reduction.”
“I didn’t expect any of this,” Dolby told THR after the ceremony, as he mingled with starstruck tech types. “I was just trying to find out ways of doing things. We were more or less successful in finding solutions.”
“For a long time I didn’t even know Dolby was a person,” said Satellite Award-winning Iron Man editor Dan Lebental last November.
“It’s an iconic name,” said Erik Aadahl, Oscar-nominated supervising sound editor of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Argo. “When I was six, I transferred movies from VHS onto audiocassettes to listen to on road trips, and they always sounded better in Dolby B.”
So iconic was Dolby that his name became a catchphrase in pop culture. In the comedy Spinal Tap, a bandmember’s meddlesome girlfriend (June Chadwick) mispronounces Dolby as “Dobly,” earning her mockery as the most shockingly ignorant person in Tap’s music universe. The 1980s singer Thomas Robertson changed his name to Thomas Dolby in honor of the real Dolby’s techno-wizardry, and recorded the hit “She Blinded Me with Science.” (Ray Dolby is survived by his actual sons Tom and David Dolby, his wife Dagmar, and four grandchildren.)
Dolby was always focused on the future, not on his accomplished past. Last fall, when THR asked him, “How will the ‘theater of the future’ sound?” Dolby replied, “I would expect the experience to be even more immersive. As object-based sound formats evolve, there will be a greater need to improve playback equipment. We need to remain creative in placing speakers in the right places, to keep the visual focus on the screen while leveraging speakers’ directional capabilities. There are challenges with larger venues that may require unique technologies. With the advent of digital-cinema server and network technologies, there may be less equipment in the projection booth, though much of the complexity will shift to integrated components as well as serving files from the cloud.”
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