Sounding Out Ray Dolby : Inventor of Revolutionary Noise-Reduction System Has Made Money the Old-Fashioned Way

Times Staff Writer

The January day is improbably balmy. From the fourth floor of a house on Presidio Heights, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is unsurpassed.

There is a grand piano in the oak-paneled fourth-floor room, one that will play by itself if you push the right button. There is an oil painting of the sea and a model sailboat, a binnacle compass and a telescope you can focus on the ships passing in and out of the bay.

The man in the room is sitting at his desk, his back to the splendors below. Occasionally, he glances down at a printed circuit board, the Rosetta Stone of the ‘80s. On it is what appears to be a random scattering of silicon chips, resistors, diodes, capacitors--a tiny city of self-contained neighborhoods whose purpose is known only to the Master Planner.


The man studies the city, then removes his glasses and stares at a wall, away from the sea. He is at once relaxed and intent, working hard at what he does best.

Ray Dolby is thinking.

Dolby, 55, is the inventor of the noise-reduction systems that bear his name. When a raindrop plops into a pool up there on the movie screen and sounds so real in the second balcony that you want to flick off the spray, that’s a Dolby invention.

So, by and large, is the videotape recorder. So is a long-wave X-ray analyzer. So are scores of other useful but recondite contributions understood only by academia, electronia, the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority and the U.S. Pat. Off.

In San Francisco, Dolby is also civic leader (opera, symphony, school system), socialite, husband of Dagmar, father of Tommy and Davey, sailor (good), skier (so-so) and sole owner of Dolby Laboratories on Potrero Avenue.

Other Properties

He owns another company in London, another house on Lake Tahoe, a sailboat and a powerboat, a Jeep and a Jag.

He is of the old breed of entrepreneur; a household word who did not spring full-blown overnight into the national consciousness, like a Jobs or a Wozniak. He is an inventor who has made money the old-fashioned way.


He confesses to a certain resentment of certain tabs, like the epithet “tinkerer.” “A tinkerer,” he sniffs, “is someone who hopes to discover or invent something on an unprepared basis. An inventor knows what he wants to do. Inventing is a very exciting process--it must be the thrill explorers had years ago--but one must be cautious because the sudden revelation might be a trap. An inventor has to have taken out a patent. I had my first one at 19.”

Nobody knows how many other Dolbys are around. It doesn’t matter, really. Ray is the Dolby. He doesn’t think about it much, even when he sees the name on every other movie marquee in the Free World.

Few people are so identified with an invention or a product. Bell. Ford. Singer. Jacuzzi and Rubik. Invariably the name, and the accruing wealth, are earned; the fame is accepted as one’s due, a report card on effort, as it were.

Dolby is no different. Although he got used to the acclamation of his peers in the industry when he was a teen-ager, fame arrived later--after 18 years overseas as Marshall Scholar at Cambridge, science adviser to UNESCO in India and founder of the first Dolby Lab, in London. But, improbable as it sounds, Dolby says he knew where he was going when he was 3.

Born in Portland and raised in Northern California, Dolby wasn’t only interested in “success” at the age of 3, he already had a pretty good idea of how he was going to go about it. Hooked on mechanics, he was obsessed with how things worked--in time, with how they could be made to work better.

During the Depression, “My father was a salesman--usually of real estate but various other things too--but he always had a workshop: power tools, interesting ways of making moldings, castings, the works. And a darkroom, too,” Dolby said around a fire in his San Francisco home.

“I was encouraged to use his tools.”

Although Dolby says he discovered the library when he was 9, “and made it a part of my life, I didn’t read too many Oz books. Technical things took precedence--not to the exclusion of literature, but let’s say my literary explorations were confined to fairly childish things: ‘Pollyanna’ books, ‘Barnaby.’ ”

A 44-year-old memory intrudes: “When I was 11 I offered to pull the cylinder head of my dad’s ’32 Plymouth and do a valve job for him. I started in the morning and finished that night, alone. . . . “

Boyish enthusiasms overlapped--all of them technical. “My ambition at 12 was to become a cameraman. I had my own projector and camera and I’d write away to those schools in Hollywood that professed to train you to be a cameraman. Visions of glory: sitting up there on a boom focusing on some dramatic scene . . . “

“A prodigy? I don’t know. I think my parents just took me for granted . . . and since I was the first child, they had no basis of comparison. They thought it was normal.”

Dolby stares into the fire and seems to have a moment of regret, fleeting as a spark. “Having kids of my own,” he says, “I guess I realize now that somehow or other I grew up before my time.”

The theater atop Dolby Labs is, of course, state of the art. Not the faintest stray blip of sound is allowed in without a pass from the front desk.

Dolby’s newest project, the room is so quiet that a reporter hesitates to use an exclamation point. Fabric is specially selected; seats are acoustically designed to reflect the same sound whether occupied or not; the room’s own air-conditioning unit is mounted on floating slabs. One is reminded of Absolute Zero.

Ioan Allen, Dolby vice president, runs a snippet of unreleased film, equipped with the new Dolby SR process. It is set in a South American jungle, and it is real enough to work up a sweat. Then a rumbling battle scene from “Mad Max II.”

“Twenty years of effort and money and refining and perfecting for ‘Mad Max’?” a visitor asks Dolby.

“We don’t pass any artistic or aesthetic judgment,” Dolby laughs. “We crossed that Rubicon when we did our first porno film in 1978. Some things are too powerful to control.”

Put as simply as possible, the invention that bears Dolby’s name is a noise-reduction system in which sound is passed through a switchless, knobless encoder, then back through a decoder. The process reduces hiss and other background noise so that what you hear--and as much as possible, all you hear--is the true sound of the recording.

How Pure Is Pure?

To a layman, the sound in the theater, if not the screenplay, seems flawless. So how pure is pure?

“There’s always a desire for better sound,” says Allen, Welsh movie-sound specialist and an 18-year Dolby veteran. “It’s no different from the desire for a flawless picture. For 100 years people have pursued it: little picture to big screen; get the grain down so you don’t see those little gray dirty spots everywhere; better color; better lenses. All so the eye makes you believe you’re there as a participant in the scene.

“The same holds true for the ear . . . The aim, both audio and visual is: You Are There.”

Back in Presidio Heights, Dolby, gracefully endures an interview. He recalls early and precocious preoccupation with sound.

“I started playing the piano at 10, then moved to clarinet so I could play in the school orchestra. Mainly, though, I was fascinated by the technology of music: how organs worked, how reeds vibrated, why things sounded the way they did.”

(Science aside, a belated dividend: “I took up the clarinet briefly again at Cambridge. I had the only clarinet in town and the Newnham College Orchestra needed one for Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony.’ It was strictly a way to meet the ladies; Newnham was a girls’ college . . . “)

In 1948, a chance brush with Alex Poniatoff, fabled founder of Ampex (developer of the first commercial audio tape recorder), altered the direction of young Dolby’s life.

Poniatoff, in Redwood City to show movies for a mental-health society, petitioned Dolby’s Sequoia High School for a projectionist. Dolby volunteered, for $5 and a free meal. After the film, and a high-level conversation on sound (Dolby had long since rigged up his own system), Poniatoff invited the high-school sophomore to work with him.

‘Engineers a Bit Skeptical’

“The engineers were, let’s say a bit skeptical, but Alex said, ‘Let the boy try.’ I ended up producing the tapes for the first Ampex tape recorders. It was pretty heady stuff. Military-application meetings with the Army and Navy, security clearances, working with the best engineers . . .

“I worked there again in the summer, then I made a deal with my high school. I was so far ahead in my credits that I didn’t have to worry about getting into college, so I went to school three hours a day and worked five at Ampex.”

“I met him when he was 19,” remembers Charlie Ginsburg, retired Ampex vice president. “I was hired to develop a practical means of recording TV programs on tape. One day a young fellow came over, introduced himself and said, ‘I hear you’re working on a television tape recorder. How’re you doing it?’ ”

In time, the two worked together, with three others, on the first viable videotape recorder.

“We made our first demonstration in October of 1952,” says Ginsburg. “It worked. And I’d say that Ray essentially was the inventor of that whole system.

“He wasn’t really a lot different in those days than he is now. He had virtually no formal education then, no college, but he was already an outstanding inventor.”

Education, though, was right around the corner.

“I’d resolved at about 12 to do a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and physics,” says Dolby with an astonishing absence of bravado.

Parents Missed College

“My parents hadn’t gone to college, but I felt that in this world of America, this land of opportunity, I’d go out and do what they didn’t have a chance to.”

Two years at San Jose State. Time out for Korean War service. Encouragement from a canny faculty adviser and a transfer to Stanford. Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. A choice between a a Fulbright in Germany and a Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge. Dolby chooses the latter, one of 12 American students so honored.

Engineering prodigy, yes. World traveler? “I’d never been out of the country,” Dolby says, “unless you want to count Tijuana. The scholars met for a party in New York and I remember thinking how normal and wholesome all these people were. We sailed on the Queen Elizabeth in 1957.”

Finally, at Cambridge, a chance to do pure research. Dolby pursued the arcane field of X-ray technology, the explanation of which totally eludes an interviewer but thoroughly intrigued the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority (and contributed to Dolby’s Officer of the Order of the British Empire, awarded last year).

Six years and a Ph.D. in physics later, “I’d worked my way into a situation in which I was burrowing myself deeper into one corner, researching and writing papers which were of interest to fewer and fewer people, down to no more than three or four in the entire world.

“I decided I had to get out of the Ivory Tower.”

In 1963, motivated by “one-third altruism, one-third wanderlust and one-third wanting to make some money (he needed a bank loan just to make a down payment on a car),” Dolby signed on with a UNESCO project in India.

Met Dagmar at Cambridge

“It was my job to help spend $3 million of the taxpayers’ money setting up a new scientific-instruments organization,” Dolby says. Dagmar, a trim, vivacious German student he’d met at Cambridge, joined him in India, ostensibly to write her own thesis.

“That India trip,” Dolby says now, “characterizes me as much as anything: wanting to combine adventure with doing something useful and practical.”

And it was high adventure, including a two-month tour of the Far East, then an overland drive back to Europe. As it turned out, it was also the foundation of the Dolby empire.

From a UNESCO salary of $10,500 tax-free, the thrifty inventor had saved enough to set up Dolby Labs in London, with the financial help of his brother and a few friends, long since bought out.

Estimated annual gross income of Dolby Labs today: $35 million.

Total cost of establishing the original Dolby Lab in London in 1965: $25,000.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. With the money running out eight months after the company was founded, Decca Records ordered the first nine Dolby A-301 professional noise-reduction units at 700 pounds apiece (then about $2,000).

In due course, in an elevator at Pye Records in London, “I heard an engineer say, ‘We have to take the dolbys from Studio A to Studio B.’ My hair stood on end. The ‘dolbys?’ ”

He didn’t know it at the time, but Ray Dolby had it made.

In his fourth-floor sanctuary overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, Ray Dolby endures a last interview--still deliberate, still patient.

He is pacing himself better these days, after a heart attack several years ago that surprised him more than it did his colleagues. “I thought I was the last person in the world to have that happen,” he says. “I see myself as being sort of low-key, relaxed, but I suppose working in this uncertainty for such a long period (the six-year development of SR as a high-quality yet economical alternative to digital sound) got to me after a while--even though I took a great deal of pleasure in doing it.”

Inventing aside, he is asked, what would constitute an ideal day?

“Dolby tilts back, the famous “inventing” stare tempered by reverie.

“Waking up in the morning and making love to my wife,” he says. “Then having brunch with my kids and going off into the country. Hopefully ending up on the boat, or in a restaurant in Sausalito. . . .”

Is he rich?

Dolby breaks up. “That’s about the silliest damn question I ever heard.”

A reporter takes his leave, and before he’s out the door, the inventor is back at his desk, looking into places nobody has seen before.

Ray Dolby is still thinking.