Saturday, September 14, 2013

Surrounded in Sound

Surround - American Hi-Fi (mp3)

We have lost a man whose influence on our entertainment is almost beyond comprehension and completely within our ears. We have lost a man none of us knew, whose achievements are taken for granted, who altered the sonic universe.

Ray Dolby died Thursday, September 12, in San Francisco. If ever there was a billionaire whose influence and value in popular culture deserved raking in the money, it’s Ray Dolby, whose love for movies and music directed his engineering prowess and knowledge.

Born in 1972, I take for granted the idea that our theaters play sound in stereo. Most kids today think 5.1-channel stereo is sub-standard, and the highest-end home audio systems work at nine channels. But the biggest and most substantial leap, by far, in the transformation of the cinema sound experience, was that vital leap from mono and stereo to Left, Right, Center and Surround. And Dolby made that process easier by leaps and bounds.

The Dolby name is so synonymous with movies and with home audio that it is truly taken for granted. I remember when Dolby Pro Logic became de rigeur. After that, I stopped noticing whether the Dolby logo was on stereo equipment I might purchase because it just always was.

When I heard the news of Dolby's death on NPR Friday morning, I was at first unfazed by the announcement. And then I began to contemplate just how omnipresent an influence Dolby’s work has been in my pop-culture immersed life. And then I did a little Googling. (Which is to say my "knowledge" here is neither expertise nor original.)

When we are told, as teenagers, and when we tell teenagers now to “find a profession you love,” to “pursue your passions,” I fear the charge is commonly misunderstood. Too often, we confuse passion with happiness. Too often we confuse loving a job with a constant, never-ceasing enjoyment. We often end up with kids who grow up following that advice in a misunderstood or naive way, and the disillusionment can be crippling.

In Dolby’s career, his engineering brilliance has left fingerprints on everywhere. He was instrumental in the creation of the first audiotape recorder and later the prototype of a machine we would later know as VHS.

Ray Dolby then achieved the seemingly impossible by engineering a process to reduce the hiss in recording instruments. To claim that Dolby NR revolutionized the sound editing process is understatement. I’m making an uneducated leap here: without Dolby NR, vocal dubbing would have continued to be standard operating procedure for movies.

Dolby’s contributions didn’t stop there. Perhaps his most well-known influence came in the work on stereo sound and the creation of “surround sound.”

Industrial Light and Magic was created, in large part, because of the special effects needs on the set of Star Wars. It was born out of specific need and became the quiet MVP of the whole movie. But without Dolby’s 4-channel stereo sound, which just as vitally changed the game for movie theaters, Star Wars would never have been praised for “blowing you out of the theater” with its lasers, explosions, and light saber clashes.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to claim we’d never have a Lucas or Spielberg without a Dolby, but would we think of these men or the best modern directors who followed in the same way without that sound, that revolutionary power to make the two dimensions on a screen feel like it was whizzing past our heads and circling around behind us? And while in today’s times we might be more familiar with the lovely THX logo that entertainingly welcomes in a huge chunk of our movies, that cool THX moment ain’t worth squat without the Dolby backbone providing it.

How much do we lovers of music and movie owe Ray Dolby? I don’t know, but his work constantly surrounds us.

1 comment:

G. B. Miller said...

An interesting footnote would be tht I believe that musician Thomas Dolby was sued by Dolby Industries for using the Dolby name.