Archive for September 15th, 2013

Roots of sound pioneer Roy Dolby’s India link

September 15, 2013

Dr. Ray Dolby passed away on September 12, 2013 in USA at the age of 80; he is an unusual entrepreneur, who created a “niche” area and made amazing products by starting a company (Dolby Laboratories); ensured that the products continuously evolved and dramatically improved, over full five decades. In addition, he ran a profitable corporation successfully without getting too greedy or developing arrogance; and, along with his wife contributed liberally to philanthropy.

After his undergraduate education Dr. Roy Dolby moved to Stanford for his Masters Degree in 1957; he moved further to University of Cambridge for his PhD degree in Physics in 1961. He took an unusual step of working for United Nations for the next couple of years that took him to India for an assignment at New Delhi in UNESCO. As part of his assignment, he had to record several pieces of Indian music (both the classical and folklore); that assignment took him to several Ashrams in North India in UP and Punjab.

Those were the days of analogue audio recoding; both “spool” and “cassette” type. Dr. Dolby used to carry loads of audiotapes to do the recording. He got very frustrated when he found that concerts of amazing quality that he personally listened to, were terrible on the recorded tape, primarily due to “hissing” noise created by Sitar & Veena – two common Indian string instruments – and the ceiling fan noise (common in many concert halls in North Indian towns, particularly Ashrams). Many of us would have talked about the frustration to our friends or complained to the higher-ups, particularly if our assignments were with UN. The genius of Dr. Roy Dolby converted the challenge to an opportunity.

“Cutting out hissing noise” became his Mission; by “amplifying low level high frequency sounds during recording, and cutting them out during playback time”, “Dolby Laboratories” managed to produce much better sound in audiocassettes; “Dolby” became synonymous with “high quality audio”. The October 2005 Issue of “Electronic Design” has a full article devoted to this. Dr. Dolby completed his UN Assignment in India and went back to Cambridge and with an initial savings of $ 25,000 started the company UK in 1965 (the company moved to USA in 1976); the rest, as they say is history.

Dolby Laboratories started with their first product Dolby 301 with “Type A Dolby Noise Reduction”. Over the years the company created products for stereo & surround sound, embraced the “digital world” and pioneered high quality sound for “movies” (including Star Trek); and, recently addressed the need for high quality sound in mobile handsets and smartphones. By following an unusual business model of directly making professional grade audio equipment, and only licensing its technology for consumer equipment and by capitalizing its intellectual property through dozens of patents (Dr. Dolby alone had more than 50 patents) yet charging very low royalty, Dolby Sound touches more than 7.2 billion consumers today! Dolby Sound is used by more than 17,00 films! With more than 1,500 employees Dolby Systems has won several Emmy, Grammy and Oscar awards.

An inspiring engineer, deep technology, amazing products and an admirable corporation – thy name is Dolby; it is nice to see its India roots!

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. He had discovered the “Indian connections” several years back, when he had a chance meet with Dr. Dolby in an Airport Lounge! These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in Times of India, September 15, 2013)