LONDON, United Kingdom – Ray Dolby’s brilliant idea came to him in a jolt as he joggled across India on a series of clapped-out busses. It was 1963 and he was a UN adviser, lugging his old Ampex recorder and collection of classical music across the sub-continent from Bangalore to New Delhi.
What if you could eliminate the hiss on magnetic audio tape by separating sound into two channels, and then strip away the unwanted tape noise?
Eliminating ‘hiss’ had been vexing sound engineers for more than thirty years, and Dolby’s brainstorm changed the course of audio history. He believed it could have “as many applications as the diesel engine.”
Industry insiders describe the company he founded, Dolby Laboratories, as the ‘gold standard’ in audio recording, with hundreds of patents and billions of products sold in more than 40 years of operation.
That journey has taken Dolby from a prototype of the Dolby A-type noise reduction system in 1966, to Dolby Digital Plus which brings surround sound to the film, music and entertainment experience on the new Nokia PureView 808, and Nokia smartphones with Belle Feature Pack 1.
Andy Dowell, Dolby’s Regional Director for Northern Europe, says the company is in touch with it’s history:
“The first thing you see when you walk into head office in San Francisco is Ray Dolby’s prototype noise reduction board from the 1960’s, with wires hanging off everywhere.”
Dolby himself exemplifies the company’s close links between engineering, research and creativity.
As a nine year old, Dolby started recording his brother reading out loud using their grandfather’s old disk recorder. He became an avid musician, and, by the time he was 16, Dolby was working part-time for Ampex recording equipment in San Francisco. He left for England to study for a doctorate at Cambridge University, researching how to reduce the interference on X-rays – but his epiphany in India drew him back to music.
“We haven’t rested on our laurels, and we’re very aware of the market,” Dowell says, “but this is a company where engineers can still have flashes of creative genius. If you walk the halls of Dolby you’ll see plenty of frustrated rock stars, retired roadies, and would-be film directors all living out their passion for music and entertainment.”
When Dolby finished his UN contract in India he rushed back to England, built a prototype, and played the results to Decca record executives. They were so impressed they bought the entire run for six months, and used the board to record studio sessions.
Word spread, and Dolby equipment was soon in demand by producers and record companies everywhere, who used the equipment to record on different channels and then mix the final track, introducing what was then revolutionary layered sound to music.
By the early 1970s, Ray Dolby had relocated the head office of his company back to his hometown of San Francisco – and adapted the technology for Hollywood.
Dolby brought Dolby Stereo sound to A Star is Born in 1976, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound to Batman in 1992, and Dolby 3D to Beowolf in 2007.
Sound designers often requested added services, leading to further innovations. George Lucas specifically asked Dolby to add more channels to Star Wars Episode One, Phantom Menace – and the result was Dolby Surround Ex with six channels of surround sound, including three rear channels.
Today nearly every movie, TV broadcast and recorded music performance uses Dolby technology, and Ray Dolby has the Academy Awards to prove it.
Then mobile technology brought a new revolution: People wanted to take their music with them, and still retain good quality.
Dolby first licensed technology to big consumer electronics companies to use Dolby equipment in everything from car stereos and cassette decks, to new digital innovations in TVs, surround sound theatre systems and DVD players.
Now people wanted to take that sound on the move.
“The N8 was the first smartphone to have Dolby Digital Plus,” Andy Dowell says. “It incorporated Dolby playback technology in the device, but could also be connected to your living room so that you could use it as part of your home theatre system. In effect, it was Blu-ray player in your pocket.”
Dolby’s shared vision with Nokia helped the partnership between the two companies overcome the usual hurdles of launching new technology:
“There are often three obstacles,” Dowell explains, “Getting embedded into chips, getting buy-in from someone who wants to put the technology in a device, and then getting services on air. Occasionally you find someone who’s as enthusiastic as you, and takes a leap of faith straight over all those hurdles. Nokia had the vision, and took that leap of faith.”
This year, at Mobile World Congress, Dolby and Nokia announced a partnership with movie service Voddler as the world’s first ever mobile service delivering Dolby Digital Plus. Dolby also announced Dolby Digital Plus in more devices, including the Nokia PureView 808 and the Nokia 700, Nokia 701 and Nokia 603.
“We’re taking it to the next level,” Dowell says. “These devices not only decode Dolby Digital Plus, they add Dolby Headphone technology to give you an amazing surround sound experience for personal listening.”
At the moment Nokia supports 5.1 channel surround sound, but is working with Dolby to increase that even further.
Press the Dolby button on your Nokia screen and you’ll hear the difference with normal stereo sound.
“Stereo is so tiring to listen to,” says Dolby’s Mark Price. “With surround sound you can actually watch a whole movie. George Lucas says sound is at least 50% of the movie. Try the Dolby button and you’ll hear what he means.”
Using Dolby Digital Plus on your Nokia has other benefits too, Andy Dowell explains. And whilst it is most commonly used to deliver surround sound, it can equally be used deliver mono and stereo “so if someone decides to record Gone With The Wind in mono you know you’ll hear the best version that it could be,” and it performs extremely well at low bandwidth, with no buffering problems.
Dolby Headphone technology has got nothing to do with the headphones you’re using, he stresses – the technology is on the chip, at the heart of the device, and will give you the best experience, whatever stereo headphones you are using.
For Mark Price it’s about educating a new generation that this is a huge leap forward from the audio quality they have come to accept from MP3s:
“You’ve got a generation that’s growing up with an old fashioned sense of what portable music is. They believe MP3s are portable music, and that you have to sacrifice quality for portability. What were saying is – you don’t have to sacrifice quality, you can have both now. MP3 is a 20 year old technology, and we’ve moved a long way forward from there.”
Pressing the Dolby button on your old cassette recorder used to be a cool thing to do – now you can do the same thing, but this time on the screen of your Nokia.
It’s smart, but simple.
Ray Dolby himself says, “All I wanted to do was make the sound as accurate as possible – what goes into the microphone comes out of the loudspeaker with without any nonsense in between.”