How Did Dolby Sound Change the Movies?

The audio pioneer is responsible for the way movies sound today

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If you’ve been to the movies anytime over, say, the last few decades, you probably know his name. Before the film starts, as the theater fills with the rich and enveloping sounds for which he’s now synonymous, you see it, splashed on the screen: Dolby.

Ray Dolby, the man—the genius—behind Dolby Laboratories, died on Sept. 12 at the age of 80. In a career that spanned nearly half a century, Dolby left his mark in the fields of both home audio and motion pictures.  He founded Dolby Laboratories in 1965, was granted dozens of patents, received an Academy Award of Merit in 1989 for his contributions to cinema sound, and won a lifetime achievement Emmy in 2003. (Dolby profited—immensely—from his inventions; Forbes estimated his personal fortune to be in excess of $2 billion.)

But what did Ray Dolby actually invent?

(MORE: Dolby’s Atmos(pheric) New Movie Theater Sound System)

Dolby’s made his first breakthrough with noise-reduction technology. In the 1960s, when magnetic tape was coming to prominence as a recording medium, “tape hiss” seemed to be an inevitable part of the listening experience. It was a problem that plagued all types of magnetic tape formats, from open-reel to audiocassette.

Dolby and his team invented a recording (and playback) process that greatly diminished the unwanted noise.  Exactly how Dolby solved this problem requires a good understanding of electronics and engineering—this clip below does a pretty good job of explaining the various processes at work:

Dolby Labs introduced the Dolby-A, their first commercial noise-reduction process, in 1965. Three years later, they introduced the same technology for consumer products.

(MORE: Technology: A New World of Sound)

Noise-reduction technology, however, isn’t what got Dolby’s name into all those cinemas. According to Gianluca Sergi’s book The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood, Ray Dolby had always wanted to get into Hollywood. And it turned that out his technology could be applied to motion-picture projection— “hiss” was also a problem for movies. Studios were interested; in the early ’70s, movies (like A Clockwork Orange) used his patented process. In 1975, the company introduced Dolby Stereo, a 35mm-print format with Dolby sound and the first functional example of what we now think of as “surround sound.”

The technology was not immediately popular, mostly because there weren’t enough theaters equipped for Dolby Stereo projection. (A Star is Born was the first movie to use the technology, but —contrary to what one might expect—it was harder to tell with a musical, since the words and the music played on different channels.)

Then, in 1977, Star Wars came along. The huge success of the film, and its groundbreaking use of sound, helped make Dolby’s new system the new standard for theaters. In 1982, Dolby Surround was introduced for home video. The company went on to introduce digital sound and sound for streaming, but Dolby’s name is probably still most associated with surround sound.

Or, maybe it was his name being mentioned in a classic scene from This Is Spinal Tap, in which David St. Hubbins’ girlfriend observes “You don’t do heavy metal in Dubly.”