Rich Warren: Remembering a sound innovator
Ray Dolby, who immeasurably enhanced our enjoyment of music and movies, died Sept. 12 at age 80. He held 50 patents and won numerous Academy Awards and Emmy Awards for his contributions to audio, video and cinema.
His first major breakthrough dramatically lowered the noise levels of studio recordings in the mid-1960s. Within a decade, nearly all recording studios and some radio stations employed Dolby A noise reduction in the recording process.
My station, WFMT, became one of the first, if not the first, to install Dolby A on all of its tape machines, including its portable Nagra, a Swiss recorder normally used to record on-location film soundtracks. As a recording engineer, I can attest to the dramatic sonic improvement offered by Dolby A noise reduction.
While many people were oblivious to Dolby's professional noise reduction, his Dolby B (and subsequently C) noise reduction elevated the humble audio cassette to an acceptable music format. Philips designed the audio cassette for dictation, not for music. Major advancements in tape formulations and Dolby B boosted it to an enormously successful music format. Dolby HX-Pro further improved the sound reproduced from cassettes.
Meantime, Dolby also changed the course of cinema. Dolby and his engineers designed a practical multi-channel film sound system. Dolby was not the first. Walt Disney's "Fantasia" used a multichannel soundtrack, but Dolby engineered a standardized, feasible system to surround you with sound at the theater and ultimately, at home.
The original Dolby home theater ProLogic required quite a feat of analog legerdemain to create multiple channels. It used much of the theory originally developed for SQ music surround sound.
As the world turned digital, Dolby led the way with digital formats currently in use. Every time you turn on your HDTV, you hear sound improved by Dolby. The company also worked on video as well. In fact, he began his career developing the first Ampex video recorder.
In 1987, I interviewed Mr. Dolby for a feature in "Video" magazine. His modest, quiet demeanor greatly impressed me. He gave credit to his staff of talented engineers for his company's many successful developments.
Dolby knew how to find and nurture promising scientists and engineers — and then let them work. Dolby was at the height of his fame in 1987, yet affably spoke with me without pretense and self-importance.
Dolby related a story about attending a reception in his honor when a woman sidled up to him, gushing how honored she was to meet him and how familiar his name was, and then she delivered the coup de grace: "But, Mr. Dolby, what happens when I push your button on my tape machine?"
Another great man has departed this world.
A few reader comments on recent columns:
"You mentioned a couple of fixes for the radio reception between Champaign and Gibson City. A couple of middle-of-the-road options are available from CCrain. I have four of their radios, including their internet radio that will tune in stations from all over the world via Wi-Fi. I, too, have the old model of the SuperRadio III and have used it for years. However, I don't think that the new SuperRadio is as good and is certainly out-performed by products from CCrain. CCrain also offers a variety of antennas for their radios. They are on line for viewing." (http://www.ccrain.com)
As far as cutting the cable for TV: "I have used nothing but roof antenna for at least 39 years. Have two TVs, one living room and one bedroom. Got a flat TV year ago and so put up a new roof antenna (last one lasted 28 years). Cost $39. Sits on roof of a mobile home in Urbana. Now I get (for free) Channels 3-1, 3-2, 12-1, 12-2, 12-3, 15-1, 17-1, 17-2, 23-1, 23-2, 27-1, 27-2. That's enough for anyone who doesn't want all the fancy channels and big TV bills."
Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at email@example.com.