Ray Dolby – A Tribute

Toby Alington looks back on the career of "a visionary of our industry," who died on September 12th.
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Ray Dolby has passed away aged 80 – a visionary of our industry who gave so much to both professionals and consumers.

His ideas transformed and unified so much of what we do by creating commercially successful standards – nothing mandatory about their acceptance or usage, just market forces proving that he got it right. After thirty years of using Dolby products, Toby Alington looks back at his personal experience of Ray’s creativity...

Sitting behind the drum booth of the old Olympic Studio Two was a mass of large grey boxes, which looked like they had come from another era. A very 1960s logo accompanied the label “S/N Stretcher”. This technology was to become Dolby A, the first successful professional noise reduction to cope with tape hiss and other noise artefacts of the analogue world.

In Studio One, we had the more modern 361 Dolby racks, with their distinctive coloured square buttons. Populated with the Cat 22 Dolby A cards, it was rare that Dolby A wasn’t used on any two-inch 24-track recording in the studios. The rare exception of switching them off was for visiting American engineers who didn’t like the sound of them on drums. We had a number of other units, fixed and floating, for stereo and four-track mastering, and for the 35mm mag recorders up in the projection box. Dolby was simply an intrinsic part of my early recording years.

Ray, who grew up in San Franciso, completed his PhD at Cambridge and founded Dolby Laboratories in London in 1965 before moving the business back to San Fran in 1976. Recipient of an Oscar, Grammy and two Emmy Awards in recognition of his amazing work in our industries, he was awarded the OBE in 1986.

Dolby A noise reduction was born in 1966, and made a huge difference to the quality of 2”, ½” and ¼” recording. The necessary bouncing tape to tape in the days of four, eight, 16 and 24-track analogue would have been prohibited by the build-up of hiss, and the massive increase in signal-to-noise on analogue multitrack was a ground-breaking move forward for the professional recording industry.

In 1968, hot on the heels of Dolby A, which was a multiband model for the professional market, came Dolby B for the domestic market. Dolby B used a single sliding-band system, which was immediately adopted for the music cassette – recordings without Dolby B were pretty unlistenable, especially classical recordings, however the compression artefacts of Dolby B could easily be heard on a badly aligned cassette player. In the pop world, consumers often preferred the “bright and sparkly” sound of Dolby B encoded material played back with the decoder switched off. But for those consumers serious about their non-vinyl hi-fi, it was a breakthrough.

It wasn’t until 12 years later in 1980 that they released Dolby C, the first implementation of “spectral skewing”, primarily for the domestic market, but this was also adopted by the professional video market on Betacam SP and Umatic SP VTRs. Dolby C sounded awful if not decoded correctly, and consequently the main distributors stuck to Dolby B for commercial cassette releases.

Around this time, Dolby Stereo was created from various existing formats and developers, including Kodak and Sansui. This was the first “surround” format for cinemas, originally developed to create a centre “dialogue” speaker from an existing stereo mix. This was essential in cinemas in order for the punters sitting on the left or right of the auditorium to perceive the dialogue as coming from the centre of the screen. In the process of creating the centre feed, the use of phase to extract the surround field proved highly successful in immersing an audience in the cinema experience. The first Dolby Stereo release was A Star is Born in 1976, and by the time I joined Olympic in 1980 all feature film scores were being mixed for Dolby Stereo.

There is much to write about the transition from optical “Academy Curve” reproduction to the implementation of Dolby A in place of this crude HF roll-off, but my only direct experience of this was the “Academy Rolloff” switch on the desk in Studio One at Olympic, which would emulate the hideous low-pass-filter so you could see how awful your mix would sound in a cinema. Again, Dolby transformed the cinema experience, removing this limitation with their technology.

By the late 1980s, Dolby had given domestic users the chance to enjoy Dolby Stereo films in the early home cinema environment with Dolby Surround and Dolby ProLogic decoders. This paved the way for television to broadcast stereo-compatible surround TV programmes, although the reluctance of broadcasters to inform their viewers by putting the Dolby Surround logo at the front of a programme meant that attempts by me and others to create TV surround soundtracks never really took off. There was no point in slaving over a surround image if no one knew to switch on their decoders!

In 1986, spectral skewing technology was released for the professional market with Dolby SR (Spectral Recording). This made analogue tape sound just incredible. I remember using it for the first time, marvelling at the clear and clean top end and transients (25dB noise reduction in the HF range) and thinking this was as good and faithful as recording was going to get. In analogue terms that was true, and SR extended the life of analogue recording well into the digital era because it sounded so much better than the first digital converters and recorders.

For my work, Dolby Digital was the next breakthrough. Limited by Dolby Stereo’s crude but practical encoding and decoding of four analogue channels into stereo, the sudden ability to have discrete positioning and control of the 5.1 image was incredibly exciting. There are a few movies out there which are testament to this being a learning curve for mixers, but from the first release of Batman Returns in 1992 Dolby Digital was going to be with us for some time. With the compression algorithm of AC3, which meant the digital signal could reside in packets between the sprockets of the film print, and then Dolby E to carry the AC3 signal for television, the cinema and home cinema experience had comparatively moved light-years ahead.

There is no other name so synonymous with breathing life and capability into the audio delivery chain. Other manufacturers have jumped on board, made alternatives to compete in the marketplace, tried to better Dolby’s creations. But Dolby’s history stands head and shoulders above all others, and we have a wonderful, talented and generous man to thank for all of this. RIP, Ray, and thank you for your legacy.

Twitter: @tobyalington

(Photo credit: Ryan Miller, AP)

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