Ray Dolby (1933 – 2013)

RayDolby_1-250During my interview, no one breathed a word about cinema. In fact, everyone at Dolby was vague about why they wanted to hire a new engineer. But I was an audio geek designing semiconductor integrated circuits in Silicon Valley, and Dolby Laboratories was not an opportunity to turn down. Only after taking the job did I learn that I was to work on a new sound system for the first release of a movie of Francis Coppola’s to be titled Apocalypse Now. All I could think of is that I didn’t know a darn thing about cinema.

That was Dolby Laboratories in the 70’s: all at once eclectic, pristine, brilliant, and a fair dose of wackiness. At that time, Dolby Labs was situated on the upper two floors of a four story building on Sansome Street, at the edge of the financial district in San Francisco. Literally around the corner was Zoetrope, where Apocalypse was being mixed. Inside Dolby, occupying most of the fourth floor, was the engineering department. On the street side of the floor were the offices for my boss, David Robinson, VP of Engineering, and our company President, Ray Dolby. Ray would wander through the lab now and then to see what his motley crew was up to. The number of projects ongoing was encyclopedic. A classic example: the fellow across from me was developing a dual tone arm LP turntable to differentiate turntable rumble from music, so the rumble could be subtracted from the main audio output. It was Ray’s idea. The lab was his playground. To demonstrate our status, we got the carpeted floors. Sales, marketing, and accounting, one floor down, got linoleum tile. I came to realize that Ray collected engineers in the way that some people collect guitars or automobiles. He was an inventor, and his eclectic group of engineers would help him build his legacy of patents. Those were the days before departmental budgets were put in place.

Ray was an inventor in every sense of the word, but he was truly brilliant in noise reduction. Ray understood intuitively that good noise reduction would take advantage of the psychoacoustic properties of the human listening system, and his sense of perfection was such that audio quality could not be sacrificed. His first patented audio noise reduction product, A-Type, divided the audio spectrum in four bands, and processed the audio signal within those bands. There were no integrated circuits in Ray’s original A-Type units. It was a 100% discrete transistor design.

Ray was not only an engineer at heart, he was also clever in business. The top consumer electronics companies fumbled by thinking that non-compatible noise reduction methods would generate a loyal base of customers for cassette players. In their refusal to work together on common technologies, Ray saw a massive opportunity to bring NR to consumer cassette recorders. To do it, he needed a cheap mechanism to mask noise following his psychoacoustic principles. The sliding band filter was developed, which relied on a single capacitor and a trans-conductance amp, a building block that can be easily realized in linear semiconductors. This became the core principle behind B-Type noise reduction.

If the technology behind B-Type was clever, the business model was ground breaking. Ray licensed his technology as a neutral party to all of the consumer electronics companies, and he would not use his technology to build a product that would compete with his licensees. As obvious as his business model might seem today, he was the first to do it on a large scale. I used to describe the formula as being “equal evil” to everyone. Evil would come to mind, as the then Japan-centric consumer electronics industry looked upon Dolby as an unwelcome parasite that was impossible to live without. Equal because everyone needed it for interoperability. It would be a decade before the consumer electronics industry embraced the concept of collaborative patent pools for cross licensing of interoperable technologies.

The day came when the market for cassette players reached saturation, and the consumer electronics companies were frantic for new features to stimulate sales. They wanted more powerful noise reduction. Ray dissed their pleas, stubbornly telling them that B-Type was enough. But they were convinced that they needed more noise reduction, so in the first collaborative effort of its kind, five consumer electronics companies agreed to a design that essentially embodied two B-Type chips, providing more noise reduction than Ray’s single B-Type filter. Ray was given only a few months to come up with a design of his choosing, or they’d put their joint design into production with his name on it.

This was a serious challenge on many levels. Ray shuttered himself in his attic, surrounding himself with the best test equipment. There were tables covered with electronic breadboards produced in the lab on Sansome. He listened to his work through multiple speaker systems, in case the coloration of any one system was masking an anomaly. Ray invited me over to take a listen one day. The results he was achieving with multiple sliding band filters were impressive.

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This is how C-Type noise reduction came into being, Ray’s second technology for the consumer industry. But while C-Type satisfied the demands of the consumer electronic companies, it didn’t do its magic to stimulate cassette player sales. Ray’s stubborn hunch proved right: the market was happy with B-Type. But his work on C-Type was by no means futile.

It was 1980. The industry was having birth pains over professional digital recorders, and the Compact Disc was still a few years away. The development of C-Type got Ray’s creative juices flowing, and the next thing we knew, he was excitedly waving his arms in the air, emulating the movable filter shapes he envisioned for a new professional noise reduction system. Ray wasn’t giving up on analog recording, and neither was a horde of recording engineers who weren’t happy with early digital recording systems. This was a market that would welcome better noise reduction. Internally, we referred to the new system as D-Type, but the market came to know it as SR, for Spectral Recording. It was a truly remarkable technology. Without doubt, SR was Ray’s finest engineering achievement. Through SR noise reduction, Ray added years of life to analog multichannel recording equipment.

I branched out, and in the 90’s partnered with former Dolby colleague Clyde McKinney in developing and marketing a new line of cinema sound equipment. Ours was the first all-digital cinema sound processor, in bold competition with the industry standard sound processor from Dolby Laboratories. While manning our booth on a trade show floor, Ray dropped in to visit. He was happy to see us, as we were to see him, and we gave him a tour, like kids showing off to their dad. As Ray carefully studied everything in our booth, his face became that of a young man full of curiosity. This was someone for whom everything held wonder, and ideas knew no end.

In June of last year, I was invited to the inauguration of the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. I happened to be sitting only a few rows behind Ray. It had been several years since seeing each other, so at the end of the ceremony, I caught his attention to say hello. It was a great day for Ray. After all, it was all about putting his name on the theater where the Oscars are awarded, and it was the flagship installation for his company’s new cinema sound system. Ray’s smile was as big as ever when we spoke.

That was the last time I saw Ray. It was a wonderful day to remember a great man by.