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Listening With Ray Dolby

Ray Dolby with Peter Cowie and Dieter Kosslick at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012

Ray Dolby did not match the conventional image of an eccentric inventor, nor that of a business mogul. Tall, handsome, a keen pilot and downhill skier, he eschewed the limelight, and yet he fought with tenacity to protect his name and brand. The history of motion pictures has been marked by such innovators as Lee de Forest (a developer of sound-on-film recording) and Herbert T. Kalmus (cofounder of the Technicolor Corporation), but only Dolby has become a household name umbilically linked to the fields of music and cinema in the way that Gillette and Hoover gave their names to excellence in other domains of everyday life. Dolby now represents a benchmark by which the recording of sound and its playback on disc and in movie theaters is judged. You’ll find the company’s logo on just about every disc that Criterion has released.

Not many people realize that Ray was also one of the inventors of the original videotape recorder. The VTR was a kind of Holy Grail for the fledgling television industry of the late forties and early fifties. If a way could be found of recording a live program on tape, then it could be re-broadcast some hours later for a different time zone in the United States. Ray was only a teenager when he began research into this at the Ampex Corporation, but by 1956, at the age of just twenty-three, he was a key member of the team that unveiled the first videotape recorder at a press conference in Redwood City—to wild acclaim. Television would never be the same again.

After receiving his doctorate from the University of Cambridge, Ray accepted an offer to go to India on behalf of UNESCO as an electronics expert. Ray told me that during his sojourn in India, he’d “had this thought churning around in my mind—how to reduce the hissing noise in [magnetic tape] recording.” He left in 1965, having decided to set up shop in the UK, and persuaded companies like Decca Records and EMI to use his noise-reduction system, which revolutionized the record industry, eliminating the hiss that had bedeviled both classical and popular music recordings. Ray’s invention marked a significant watershed where listening was concerned. By the late 1960s, LPs sounded altogether different. Suddenly, one was closer to the music, intimately connected with every element of the performance. It was like visiting a great art gallery, and seeing paintings that had been cleaned and restored to their pristine beauty—or simply gazing out of a freshly washed window at a landscape that could finally be viewed in sharp focus.

Next in line for Ray was the film industry. His interest in movies dated back to his early childhood, when he had seen Walt Disney’s Fantasia. In 2010, he told me, “Whenever I went to the movies, I thought, ‘This sound is really terrible. How can that industry not be paying attention to what’s going on here?’ ” During a visit to London’s Elstree Studios, he was shocked to see the appalling state of the design, manufacture, and maintenance of sound equipment. “Nobody cared about the sound on motion pictures in those days,” he lamented. “I went to a vice president of marketing at Universal who started shouting at me, saying, ‘You’re crazy! There’s only two things that sell movies: good stories and comfortable seats. Get out of here!’ ”

Stanley Kubrick, however, admired the work that Dolby had accomplished in music, and A Clockwork Orange was the first feature film to use Dolby noise reduction on all premixes and masters, although it was ultimately released with a conventional optical soundtrack.

Many films followed suit. Star Wars would never have enjoyed such a massive success in 1977 had it not been for Dolby Stereo. If someone alighted from a cab, wearing a Dolby T-shirt, the lines of people waiting to enter the theater for Star Wars would burst into spontaneous cheers and applause. Suddenly, all the studios wanted to use Dolby, and what Ray and his engineers had invented had a significant impact on movie attendances. So-called “surround” sound helped facilitate the studios’ enhancement of their palette of rapidly evolving special effects and, during the years that followed, C.G.I. technology. An industry that had seemed doomed by the advent of home video entered a new phase, with the “theatrical experience” coming to the fore once again.

Ray and his engineers—Ioan Allen and David Robinson—sought to improve his system with each passing year. Dolby Stereo was succeeded by Dolby Surround, which in 1992 gave way to Dolby Digital and then to Dolby Surround EX, and, most recently, to Dolby Atmos, with its speaker channels in the theater ceiling (“the voice of God,” quipped Ray).

I was fortunate to know Ray during the final years of his life, working with him on his archives in San Francisco. He was a man who kept every receipt, every letter, not to mention the numerous patents he had developed. I waded through boxes filled with documents from his time as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Cambridge, from his years working for UNESCO in India, and from the time in South London where he and his tireless wife Dagmar founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965.

After a morning’s interview session, Ray would take me to a light lunch in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, or further afield in one of his cars—the BMW, the Jaguar, or the Tesla that he loved so much. You could go anywhere with Ray and not feel in the public eye. His diffidence and self-effacing approach to the media meant that he was rarely recognized as a luminary except by his friends and business colleagues.

He could not have accomplished so much without two manifest characteristics—curiosity and passion. His Finnish roots may have given Ray his calm, matter-of-fact attitude, as well as a fondness for classical music. To his American upbringing, however, he owed his technical skills and his sturdy, controlled ambition through the years.

Ray would listen to you intently and then respond to a question in comparatively few words, revealing his Nordic inheritance. He talked with assurance and discretion, but never with such assurance and discretion as on the subject of wealth. After Dolby became a publicly traded company, Ray’s fortune was estimated at around $3 billion. “I honestly don’t know how much I’m worth,” he would tell me. “I never really wanted to make a lot of money, but just enough to enjoy life as I wanted. And I’ve done that.”

During my visits, Ray and I would often conduct our interviews at his house in Sonoma. One day, after a lengthy conversation, he strolled outside and we sat down facing the valley fringed with numerous olive trees. “Listen,” he said, and we could hear the soughing of the wind in the high grass. I told him that it reminded me of certain scenes in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, which remains a glorious example of Dolby Stereo recording and re-recording. “Exactly,” purred Ray. For him, on a music recording or a movie soundtrack, the silence between the sounds mattered even more than the sounds themselves.

Ray passed on in September 2013, at the age of eighty. The following January, a celebration of his life was held in San Francisco. Some 2,000 guests crowded into Davies Symphony Hall to hear tributes from all sides of the film and music worlds—from Michael Tilson Thomas, Walter Murch, Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead, and George Lucas, among many others. A joyous occasion, reminding the audience that almost everything we hear today, in shopping malls, in our own homes, in movie theaters, has been improved by what Ray Dolby achieved as an inventor.

This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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