IBC 2013

Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Ray Dolby Dead at 80

Dolby Laboratories announced that audio-technology legend Ray Dolby died in his San Francisco home Thursday at the age of 80. He had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for several years and was diagnosed with acute leukemia in July.

Ray Dolby

Ray Dolby

Whether it was in the theater or at home, Ray Dolby changed how we heard our world.

“Today, we lost a friend, mentor, and true visionary,” Dolby Laboratories President/Chief Executive Kevin Yeaman said in a statement. “Ray Dolby founded the company based on a commitment to creating value through innovation and an impassioned belief that, if you invested in people and gave them the tools for success, they would create great things. Ray’s ideals will continue to be a source of inspiration and motivation for us all.”

Dolby founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965 in London. The then-32-year-old Portland, OR, native had earned a Ph.D. degree at Cambridge, atop his degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University, further adding to a massive knowledge base he had acquired working on audio and instrumentation projects for Ampex, where, from 1952 to 1957, he was largely responsible for development of the electronic aspects of the Ampex videotape recording system.

In 1976, Dolby moved the rapidly expanding Dolby Labs to San Francisco, where it established offices, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities. From there, he proceeded to elevate the quality of broadcast sound via a constantly innovative stream of new products.

His work in noise reduction and surround sound led to the creation of a number of technologies that are still used in music, movies and entertainment. The innovations also turned Dolby into a rich man, with an estimated fortune of $2.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 format, chosen for digital-TV broadcasting in 1995, brought sports broadcasting into the realm of discrete-5.1-surround audio when it debuted on ABC’s Monday Night Football in 1999. The network carried the entire 1999-2000 MNF schedule in Dolby Digital 5.1, concluding with Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta.

Dolby was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December 2012. He is survived by his wife, Dagmar; his sons, Tom and David; their spouses, Andrew and Natasha, and four grandchildren.

To learn more about the life and legacy of Ray Dolby, visit his Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame tribute page.

SVG Executive Director Martin Porter Remembers Ray Dolby
Thirty-five years ago, I was involved in a startup magazine for recording studios. Those were the days when there actually were recording studios. And recordings were made on 2-in. tape, which was the source material for a historic generation of music that would have sounded a whole lot worse if it weren’t for Ray Dolby.

Ray was the guy you saw walking around the AES Show — just an ordinary engineer playing with the gear and talking specs. He had his name on every tape machine on the planet, but he wasn’t quite famous himself. In those days, “Dolby” meant noise reduction: a push of a button took the horrible hiss out of the recording and playback.  And this man behind the miracle was a great “get” for a sound-struck, young journalist who was only doing the job so he could hang out where the music was being made: at the Hit Factory, the Record Plant, Sigma, Criteria, Muscle Shoals, etc.

Those were tape days for journalists, too. I had a Sony cassette recorder with a suction-cup microphone that I used to tape all my phone interviews. I licked the suction cup, pressed it to the phone receiver, then pressed RECORD, and let Ray tell about his life as a technical vagabond from England to India and back to San Francisco; the early days of building the first tape machine at Ampex; and then his dream of a sound bigger than stereo — something he called surround. I confess that I don’t remember all the details of the piece, and, sorry, I was unable to find that ancient issue of the magazine, Pro Sound News, in my shed.

But here’s something nobody ever read: the damn microphone had fallen off the phone receiver. The tape had the ultimate form of noise reduction: it was blank. I had taken up one hour of this engineering giant’s time, and I had nothing to show for it.

So I had a choice: make the story up or call him back.

I got Ray Dolby back on the phone. I cracked a joke, waited for him to say he couldn’t talk, and then after a short laugh, he started talking all over again, as if he had taped the conversation himself in his head. He was a gentleman. Zero attitude. Happy to oblige. I taped and took written notes as backup this time.

I told this story recently to one of my editors who had a similar editorial mishap, as I’ve probably told it dozens of times before. It was my pat life lesson about how men of greatness can still be kind, that you’re never too busy to help someone who’s just getting started.

I even got a chance to tell the story to Ray himself.

Several years back, I was on a cab line at CES and was offered to share a ride. I hopped in the back seat and found myself sitting next to Ray Dolby, now a billionaire, now a brand name, now a legend.

I introduced myself, and he pretended he remembered who I was.

After a bit of trade-show, new-product chit-chat, of course, I told him my story, to which he reacted with a nod and a deadpan smile. I thanked him for helping out a young journalist, for not making me feel like an absolute fool, and for being so generous with his time and for just plain understanding. He nodded as if it was nothing and replied with playful grin: “I must not have been very busy that day, huh?”

That was Ray Dolby: a decent, regular guy. He was just another Joe who woke up in the morning, put on his pants one leg at a time, and then went to work to make the world a better-sounding place.

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