Ray Dolby: hiss-toric change to music and movies

Sep 13, 2013

Five facts about engineer whose noise-reduction technology transformed music and the movies

RAY DOLBY, the American engineer whose noise-reduction technology "changed the way we listen to music and movies", has died at the age of 80, the BBC reports. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for several years and was recently diagnosed with leukaemia. Born in Portland, Oregon, Dolby's groundbreaking approach to reducing background noise in audio recordings was adopted by music and movie studios before cropping up in audio devices used in millions of homes. His Dolby Laboratories also pioneered the development of surround sound. Here are five facts about a boffin who won two Oscars, several Emmys and a Grammy.

He provided one of the best lines in the movie This is Spinal Tap:  One of the most memorable lines in the 1984 ‘rockumentary'This is Spinal Tap is uttered by Jeanine Pettibone, the interfering girlfriend of band leader David St Hubbins. Offering her opinion of one of the band's poorly-received albums, Pettibone says: "You don't do heavy metal in dobbly." Her failure to pronounce Dolby correctly has made her an object of derision among men whose amplifiers go up to 11 ever since.

He made Star Wars possible The 1977 sci-fi movie was "the pivotal moment in movie sound," Michael Minkler, a recording mixer at Los Angeles post-production studio Todd-AO Studios told Variety. The film's soundtrack was made up of "literally hundreds of tracks" and would have been obliterated by "hiss and rumble" unless Dolby's pioneering noise-reduction technology had been available.

His name was borrowed by an Eighties pop star: When English musician Thomas Robertson was looking for a stage name, he didn't have to look any further than his tape deck. Re-christened Thomas Dolby, he scored an international hit in 1982 with She Blinded Me With Science. That brought him to the attention of Dolby Laboratories who took him to court in a bid to stop him using his adopted name. Dolby - the musician - won the case, although he was prevented from releasing any electronic equipment bearing his pseudonym.

The Oscars are handed out in a theatre bearing his name: Kodak paid $78m for the naming rights to the theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where Tinseltown's A-list pick up their Oscars. But when Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Dolby stepped in. Dolby Laboratories has signed a 20-year naming rights deal with the theatre and uses the venue as a showcase for state-of-the-art audio technologies. The Oscars after-party is held in the Ray Dolby Ballroom in the same venue.

He was rich, but he wasn't driven by money: The Richest website estimates Dolby was worth $2.3bn, but he made it clear money didn't motivate him. "I was never a gold-digger, or an Oscar-digger, or anything like that," he once said. "I just had an instinct about the right sort of things that should be done in my business."

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