September 24, 2013

Pioneer of All Things Audio: How Ray Dolby Enriched Our Lives

A little over a week ago, the audio and filmmaking communities lost a legendary member, Ray Dolby. If audio is equally important as picture in filmmaking, then it stands to reason that Ray Dolby has done more to elevate the craft and enjoyment of film than any other individual in the history of the medium. It's a bold statement, to be sure, but one that makes sense when trying to contextualize his lifetime of extraordinary achievements. Here are just a few of the ways in which Ray Dolby indelibly enriched each and every one of our lives.

First, here is a touching tribute to Ray Dolby from his peers at Dolby Laboratories:

Ray Dolby's contributions to audio are countless. With over 50 patents, there are few corners of the audio industry in which Dolby's technology is not omnipresent. His magnificent contributions to cinema sound, however, can be traced to a few key inventions and advancements, dating back to 1965.

His first major invention was Dolby A, a precursor to his revolutionary noise reduction techniques. Before Dolby Noise Reduction (NR), hiss was a major problem in audio production, and signal to noise ratios were often 1:1 or higher. Here's Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead fame on Dolby NR:

Before Dolby noise reduction, the tape hiss was as loud as the original source signal. We would have to use extreme techniques to even come close to the sound we wanted. It was simply out of the range and design of the magnetic tape of the day. Until Ray's vision.

Dolby's next major innovation came in 1975 with the introduction of Dolby Stereo, which allowed for a four-channel stereo soundtrack to be optically printed onto 35mm release prints. Several major films, most notably Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, took full advantage of the new audio format. Here's George Lucas on Dolby's contribution to his film.

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.

star-wars-0081

Seven years later, in 1982, Dolby Surround was introduced. This new format allowed for dual stereo tracks to be simultaneously encoded in consumer video formats such as VHS, thus bringing the home viewing experience to a level never before seen.

In the late 80's, Dolby introduced what some believe to be one of his greatest achievements, Dolby SR (Spectral Recording.) This new form of noise reduction took elements from the Dolby A, B, and C processes, and it quickly became the industry standard as it vastly improved upon the performance of other noise reduction processes.

dolby20Shortly thereafter, Dolby Laboratories introduced Dolby AC-3, better known today as Dolby Digital. This new technology allowed for digital blocks of audio to be printed between the perforations on a 35mm print before being decoded into a 5.1 surround mix. Ever more impressive is that Dolby Digital was backwards compatible in that analogue audio prints existed alongside the digital data, thus ensuring that prints could be played in any theater, regardless of whether or not they had the ability to decode the digital signal.

The brilliance of Dolby didn't stop with sound for cinema, however. Here's a brief recap of some of Dolby's other inventions from Creative Cow's excellent piece on the legacy of Ray Dolby:

Dolby Headphone technology, Dolby E codec for DTV multichannel audio production and distribution, Dolby Pro Logic II, Dolby Virtual Speaker technology, Dolby TrueHD lossless coding for HD video discs, Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, Dolby Axon for 3D voice communication to online games; Dolby Mobile technology for 5.1 channel surround sound on mobile phones; Dolby Surround 7.1 for digital cinemas and, later, streaming media.

To this day, many of the great minds which Ray Dolby fostered are still pioneering audio for cinema and beyond. The latest innovation from Dolby Laboratories, Dolby Atmos, looks to be the most immersive audio experience known to man.

https://vimeo.com/72352585

Pretty much any way you look at it, Ray Dolby and his company have changed the way we experience films. From noise reduction, to stereo sound, to immersive surround sound experiences, Dolby has truly pioneered audio in ways to which no other human can lay claim. For that, we will honor and remember him, and his immense legacy, forever.

"To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in this darkness and grope towards an answer, to put up with anxiety about whether there is an answer." - Ray Dolby (1933-2013)

What have your experiences been with Dolby's innovations? How has Dolby's work affected your work in the film industry? Let us know in the comments.

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10 Comments

Ray Dolby has done more to elevate the craft and enjoyment of film than any other individual in the history of the medium. It’s a bold statement! But it true" he will be missed.

September 24, 2013 at 2:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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The German sound engineers actually got a fairly reasonable 54 db S/N on their reel-to-reel decks in the early-mid-40's (von Braunmühl, Weber) and also had the first stereophonic recordings during WWII. The subsequent tape hiss mentioned by Weir was created by the multiple overdubs/bounces, which was an accepted recording practice of the 1960's 2/3/4 track recorders. Dolby B/C did help destroy Sony's proprietary Elcaset format of the late-70's, which was otherwise far superior to the compact (Philips) cassette that was omnipresent in the global home/portable audio market of the era.

September 24, 2013 at 5:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

You don't do heavy metal in Dubly, you know.

September 24, 2013 at 8:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gavin

And that album cover could be none more black.

September 24, 2013 at 11:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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You can't really dust for vomit.

September 24, 2013 at 11:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Anon

But what about the amp... how high does it go?

September 25, 2013 at 6:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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The funny thing about that was Marshall Major was indeed the loudest guitar amp in the world. The standard issue was 200 Watts and some guitar players like Richie Blackmore had them customized to about 240. Then some like Hendrix or Blackmore used double or triple stack. That gave around 135 DB's at the source, enough to blow out a musician's ear drums in a hurry. Before switching to a mic'ed PA system,. Deep Purple featured six Marshall stacks on stage and was once registered at 135 DB's in the sixth row. The sound quality may not have been the greatest but it surely was loud.

September 25, 2013 at 1:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Dolby SR was the pinnacle of analog noise reduction technology. To this day I am still in awe of just how good it was. BTW, Ray was also on the team at Ampex that invented the Quadruplex video recorder. Just one more contribution that elevated the art.

September 24, 2013 at 8:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dave

As I watched this on my Mac my AVR lit up with "Dolby Pro Logic IIx" as my Mac is connected to the AVR at my desk I use for editing/movies. Just send a little shiver down my spine. The name is something everyone knows and something I will not soon forget!

September 25, 2013 at 5:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Nate O

You neglect to mention that Ray Dolby was on the team at Ampex that invented the modern VTR. Quad, helical-scan videotape.

September 25, 2013 at 9:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ken