Ray Dolby wasn’t the only person to have had a life-altering “ah-ha” moment while traveling in India.
But his, which came in the early 1960s while listening to scratchy recordings he’d made, may be one of the few that altered the soundtrack of the world. On Jan. 22 Dolby will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Dolby’s epiphany was that he could reduce the noise inherent on analog tape without degrading the recorded signal. He turned that revelation into the Dolby noise reduction system, which debuted for pro audio recording in 1966.
Over the past 50 years, that single-channel technology has grown from mono to stereo to surround to immersive, and today it’s used on the vast majority of entertainment.
“At the heart of each of those steps is a Ray Dolby invention,” says Ioan Allen, senior VP, cinema industry relations, Dolby Labs.
Dolby’s influence in cinema can be felt back as far as 1971 when Dolby noise reduction was used during the post-production of “A Clockwork Orange.” The first film released in Dolby Mono was “Callan” in 1974. “A Star Is Born,” released with Dolby Stereo in 1976 was the first step to surround sound.
But it was “Star Wars,” a year later, that changed the sound of film forever and Dolby was a key part of that.
“Ray’s pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing ‘Star Wars’ to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be,” said director George Lucas in the San Francisco Chronicle after Dolby’s death in September 2013.
Dolby earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1957 and a postdoctoral degree in physics from Cambridge in 1961. He spent two years in India as a science adviser for Unesco, setting up laboratories.
Then came Dolby Laboratories in 1965 and, with it, a collection of talented engineers that shared Dolby’s passion.
“Ray had a habit of walking around (the office), just as you were thinking of leaving for the evening and asking what you were doing,” recalls Ken Gundry, who worked at Dolby from 1972 to 2013. “You’d explain the problem you’d been working on and he’d say, ‘Have you thought of such-and-such?’
“Of course, that was the solution you’d been searching for. Ray Dolby was technically a genius. Alarmingly so.”
At the same time, says Allen with a laugh, “Ray didn’t believe in business plans,” Allen recalls. “He was very opportunity oriented. He said, ‘I’m going to do some great engineering and I need my own company to do that.’ ”