Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Remembering Ray Dolby – Father of Tape Noise Reduction

Though his iconic invention made him a very wealthy man, could the world of hi-fi and music be very different today if Ray Dolby hasn’t bequeathed his invention to the public for almost nothing? 

By: Ringo Bones   

Sadly, Ray Dolby passed away Friday, September 13, 2013 aged 80. Forever remembered after the iconic noise reduction system that bears his name, the music and hi-fi world would probably not exist as we know it today without his inventive solution in tackling the perennial problem of magnetic recording tape hiss.
Ever since the US Armed Forces introduced working samples of World War II era German analog open-reel tape recordings and their associated tape recording and playback equipment near the end of the 1940s in various trade expos, many American audio engineers suddenly got an epiphany that tape hiss or noise is not going to be an easy problem to solve. This is so because tape noise results mainly from the lack of homogeneity of the magnetic coating. Even with existing technology – then and now – the ferrous particles can never be distributed absolutely uniformly throughout the coating and the resulting aggregations of these particles create discrete magnetic fields which – during replay – manifests itself as noise e.m.f. or tape hiss at the playback head and thus amplified along with the desired audio signal. 

Luckily, a then young electronics engineer named Ray Dolby managed to formulate – i.e. engineered - a very cost effective solution that became a noise reduction system that is named after him. Thanks to Ray Dolby, the lowly cassette tape that was primarily created by Philips as an office dictation medium was raised to high fidelity status and became a very cost effective analog tape based music recording medium since the latter half of the 1970s and even displacing vinyl LP in popularity as a domestic hi-fi playback medium during the 1980s. 

In 1967, Henry Kloss heard about Ray Dolby’s noise reduction system – i.e. the Dolby A which was intended for professional studio recording noise reduction applications during the Rock N’ Roll era. It was Kloss who pushed for a consumer version of the Dolby A noise reduction system which is now known as the Dolby B, which Kloss originally saw as a boon to home/domestic open-reel tape users. Somewhat later, Kloss linked the Dolby B noise reduction system with a previously unsuccessful Du Pont product – the chromium dioxide tape. And thanks to the magical midwifery at which Henry Kloss excels, made the Philips cassette tape a runaway commercial success and Ray Dolby a very wealthy man, though Ray Dolby’s almost philanthropic like gesture of never asking for much for the royalties of his iconic noise reduction had only served to popularize his noise reduction system to the masses. 

Thanks to his financial success, Ray Dolby also paved the way for various inventions and inventors to make domestic high fidelity a much more affordable hobby. Using the same Peter Scheiber patents of the old quadraphonic sound systems that expired with barely a whimper back in 1975, Dolby Laboratories managed to create Dolby Pro Logic – a surround sound system that made possible those relatively affordable surround sound capable home cinemas during the early 1980s that also made low-cost mediums like the VHS or Betamax video cassette tapes – and even cassette tapes – capable of life-like surround sound reproduction when used with a designated Dolby Pro Logic decoding box. 

Unbeknown to most of us, Ray Dolby first cut his teeth in the field of radio astronomy. In fact, his Dolby Noise Reduction System came from his earlier work in trying to extract very weak cosmic radio signals from background radiation noise mainly caused by our very own radio telecommunications traffic. 

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