A Tribute to Ray Dolby – By Martin Porter

Thirty-five years ago, I was involved in a startup magazine for recording studios. Those were the days when there actually were recording studios. And recordings were made on 2-in. tape, which was the source material for a historic generation of music that would have sounded a whole lot worse if it weren’t for Ray Dolby.

Ray was the guy you saw walking around the AES Show — just an ordinary engineer playing with the gear and talking specs. He had his name on every tape machine on the planet, but he wasn’t quite famous himself. In those days, “Dolby” meant noise reduction: a push of a button took the horrible hiss out of the recording and playback.  And this man behind the miracle was a great “get” for a sound-struck, young journalist who was only doing the job so he could hang out where the music was being made: at the Hit Factory, the Record Plant, Sigma, Criteria, Muscle Shoals, etc.

Those were tape days for journalists, too. I had a Sony cassette recorder with a suction-cup microphone that I used to tape all my phone interviews. I licked the suction cup, pressed it to the phone receiver, then pressed RECORD, and let Ray tell about his life as a technical vagabond from England to India and back to San Francisco; the early days of building the first tape machine at Ampex; and then his dream of a sound bigger than stereo — something he called surround. I confess that I don’t remember all the details of the piece, and, sorry, I was unable to find that ancient issue of the magazine, Pro Sound News, in my shed.

But here’s something nobody ever read: the damn microphone had fallen off the phone receiver. The tape had the ultimate form of noise reduction: it was blank. I had taken up one hour of this engineering giant’s time, and I had nothing to show for it.

So I had a choice: make the story up or call him back.

I got Ray Dolby back on the phone. I cracked a joke, waited for him to say he couldn’t talk, and then after a short laugh, he started talking all over again, as if he had taped the conversation himself in his head. He was a gentleman. Zero attitude. Happy to oblige. I taped and took written notes as backup this time.

I told this story recently to one of my editors who had a similar editorial mishap, as I’ve probably told it dozens of times before. It was my pat life lesson about how men of greatness can still be kind, that you’re never too busy to help someone who’s just getting started.

I even got a chance to tell the story to Ray himself.

Several years back, I was on a cab line at CES and was offered to share a ride. I hopped in the back seat and found myself sitting next to Ray Dolby, now a billionaire, now a brand name, now a legend.

I introduced myself, and he pretended he remembered who I was.

After a bit of trade-show, new-product chit-chat, of course, I told him my story, to which he reacted with a nod and a deadpan smile. I thanked him for helping out a young journalist, for not making me feel like an absolute fool, and for being so generous with his time and for just plain understanding. He nodded as if it was nothing and replied with playful grin: “I must not have been very busy that day, huh?”

That was Ray Dolby: a decent, regular guy. He was just another Joe who woke up in the morning, put on his pants one leg at a time, and then went to work to make the world a better-sounding place.