Ray Dolby was an inventor with a capital “I,” a pioneer in the audio arts who really had to blaze a trail in sound so that the industry could revel in the astonishing digital capability we enjoy today. Ray was a quiet and soulful man, an engineer and physicist who loved music and, unlike other famous innovators, was not interested in grabbing the stage. He was more interested in the sounds that emanated from it. In the process, he became the rare inventor whose creativity profoundly changed television, film and the entire recording industry.
From an early age, Ray thought about how he could improve recorded sound. He was only twenty-two in 1956 when he and a team of engineers helped invent the first practical videotape recording system, a technological leap that revolutionized television because it meant that programs no longer had to be aired live. TV news was soon being time-delayed to the west coast by three hours, in an age when the very notion of “tape delay” seemed like something from the outer reaches of the universe. And videocassette recorders, which forever altered home-viewing habits, are a direct descendant of that early videotape system.
Of course, Ray is best known for his pioneering work in noise reduction and surround sound. Although his scientific work was ground breaking, his achievements were so easy to comprehend — you could hear the difference. And his innovations came from a personal place. He loved music, loved to listen to it, but was confounded by the problem of distortion on tape recordings. So he decided to do something about it. Soon after founding Dolby Laboratories in the mid-1960s, Ray introduced the engineering breakthrough that got rid of that troublesome hiss. Since then, his last name has become synonymous with good sound. Around the world, you can't play a DVD without its soundtrack being Dolby-encoded. That's some reach.
When Ray was bothered by the mediocre sound quality in films, he essentially reinvented the moviegoing experience. Both his noise-reduction technology and advances in surround sound helped alter the creative landscape. Because of Ray, sound became another character in film, as important as the pictures. The sound of the spaceship communicating with scientists on earth in Close Encounters of the Third Kind packs a powerful emotional wallop. Director Steven Spielberg may have made that 1977 film, but he would be the first to admit he did it using Ray's technology. The big guns — the Francis Ford Coppolas, the Spielbergs, the George Lucases — believe what Ray did made it possible for them to make the films they dreamed of.
Before Dolby technology was adopted by television, the creative community was chagrined over the way their work came across on that once-small box. Remember those old black-and-white Ed Sullivan variety shows? Sure, viewers tuned in, but they felt like they were voyeurs of the experience, on the outside looking in. Ray changed all that. Through his inventions in sound, the TV viewer became more of a participant. He was always pushing the science of sound forward, seemingly against all odds. When we started hearing the word “digital" and didn't yet understand quite what that meant, we had to trust that Ray and his team were on the right track. Now when you see that double "D" logo — and let's face it, it’s everywhere — you know that what you're about to hear is going to be divine. Without Ray Dolby, the rallying cry of the movie and television business in the 1970s would still be with us. Everyone would be watching the screen and wondering: “What did he say?”
Inventor and engineer Ray Dolby was still a teenager when he began re-inventing picture and sound technology. While attending high school and earning his engineering degree from Stanford University, he helped develop the first broadcast-quality videotape recording system while working for Ampex Corporation, a Bay Area electronics company. After earning a doctorate in physics from Cambridge University, he founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965 in London. His pioneering work in noise reduction and surround sound revolutionized the recording industry, filmmaking and home entertainment. Dolby held more than fifty U.S. patents and personally received two Engineering Emmy Awards for technical achievement. In 2003, the Television Academy recognized his contributions to television technology with the Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award. Dolby died in 2013.
Sid Ganis is a film producer and the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Ray Dolby’s induction in 2014.