Feature

Ray Dolby, 1933–2013

The audio engineer who refined recording

If it weren’t for Ray Dolby’s audio expertise, the hum of light sabers and howls of X-wing fighters in Star Wars would never have achieved their breathtaking clarity. Dolby’s innovations are what enabled the 1977 blockbuster’s revolutionary soundtrack. “Star Wars changed sound forever,” said Michael Minkler, the movie’s sound mixer, and Dolby made that possible.

Dolby was obsessed with mechanical devices from a young age, said The Wall Street Journal. As a teenager, he landed a job with pioneering audio firm Ampex after serving as the projectionist when the company’s founder gave a talk at his high school. He went on to study engineering at Stanford University and to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University before traveling to India to help UNESCO set up a national laboratory for the Indian government. When he recorded professional musicians playing in his home on a multitrack reel-to-reel tape recorder, “the irritating and pervasive hiss on his recordings gave him the idea for a business.”

Dolby returned to England in 1965 and set up a company bearing his own name, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), working on technology that eliminated unwanted background noise. The record industry soon made Dolby’s noise-reduction system the standard for commercial tapes. The engineer returned to the U.S. in 1976 and “turned his attention to the cinema”—introducing the multiple speakers and surround-sound technology that would make Star Wars’s intergalactic battles come alive, and investing the sound of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind “with the same emotional intensity as the pictures.”

“Dolby’s innovations established worldwide standards for sound,” said Variety.com, and his company received 10 Academy Awards and secured more than 50 U.S. patents. But Dolby had never sought glory. “I was never a gold digger, or an Oscar digger, or anything like that,” he said. “I just had an instinct about the right sort of things that should be done in my business.”

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