A conversation with Ray Dolby

A discussion about the past, present and future of the company

Ray Dolby founded the company that bears his name in 1965, developing new technologies, such as noise reduction, that tranformed audio recording. He brought his technology to the motion picture business in the 1970s and the company has since become nearly synonymous with quality sound. Now 71, Dolby discussed the past, present and future of the company on its 40th anniversary.

Variety: How did you decide to take your audio technology to the film business?

Ray Dolby: I actually thought of the film business as being a very, very important thing to do right from the beginning. When I started the company in 1965, hi-fi was already there, stereo was already there. The music one could hear in the home was very high-quality indeed, but when you went to the movie theater the sound was terrible. However, there were a lot of problems in the film business and therefore I thought that the safest thing to do was to go into the professional recording studio business first.

Variety: How receptive were the film and exhibition communities when you first began to propose ways to improve cinema sound?

Dolby: I gave my first demonstrations at Elstree Studios, just outside London, in 1966. And Tony Lumkin, who was the chief of sound at that time, and Mike Bradbury, his assistant, welcomed me. I worked with them quite a bit making demonstrations and tests and when I went to other studios I was rather surprised to find out that they weren’t that interested. So I tended to stick with Elstree Studios and work with them.

Variety: Was there any one reaction from that time that particularly stands out?

Dolby: I do remember going to a studio, and after the recording session everybody had drinks and then we went out for lunch and I remember talking to one fellow. He had taken note of my interest for sound in movies and his advice was: “Nobody’s interested in the sound, you’re wasting your time. They’re interested in the picture, they’re interested in the stars, they’re interested in the story, they like the glitz and the glamour of it and who cares about the sound?” And that was a rather shocking thing to hear coming from a person in the industry. But I think that was the general feeling.

Variety: Was there a moment or a picture that you saw that made you think this is what we’ve wanted to do from the start?

Dolby: It was a very, very slow, gradual process. There were no dramatic moments. It was more or less one person after another saying, “You know, I like this improved sound.”

Variety: How does the coming age of digital cinema compare to the time when cinema sound technology began to take hold?

Dolby: I think it’s going to be a similar extended struggle. I think that, as with noise reduction, once you take away the improvement, once people notice what it’s like not having improvement — let’s say you go to a movie or listen to a recording that doesn’t have any hiss or noise on it — you get used to it. The people got used to a quiet, distortion-free sound and once they had that they didn’t want to go back. And I think it’s going to be the same thing with the picture.

Variety: Why take the company public after 40 years?

Dolby: It’s something that I had been thinking about for decades. I thought about the possibility of selling the company to a larger company, but as I learned more about companies that did that sort of thing I found out that more or less they were swallowed by the larger company and nothing was ever seen of them again. They lost their individuality, their character. So that’s why I decided in the end that taking the company public would give us the greatest chance of retaining the identity of the company.

Variety: What was the most satisfying moment for you in the company’s history?

Dolby: I had worked very hard to get my noise reduction system introduced and lots of tests were done at the Decca Record company in London. In April 1966, they went off to make some recordings. And they brought this back to London to play it and they invited me to come in and have a listen to it with them. I just opened the door and went in. Tried to make it unobtrusive, but when the recording engineers, producers saw me, they stood up and burst into applause and stopped the recording and just applauded for the longest time. And that was so satisfying. I thought these people really appreciate what I’ve been trying to do. And it was wonderful.

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