Last week, I was fortunate enough to visit Dolby Headquarters in Soho Square (as anyone who follows us on twitter will have spotted). For some time now, I've wanted to get a demonstration of the new Dolby ATMOS system, to hear it for myself and discuss it with the technicians in the company. I had planned to write about it in this blog post.
That very evening after my visit however, I read that Ray Dolby, the man behind the company and that famous brand, had sadly passed away, aged 80. It's hard to comprehend that just one person transformed the way most of the planet hears films and music.
As I waited in reception at Dolby HQ, I noticed 4 photographs from the 1960s hanging very proudly on the wall. The pictures were of Ray in his laboratory and offices in Clapham in 1966 - pictured with three other technicians and the tea lady.
Although he was born in Oregon and eventually lived in San Francisco, it was after getting his PhD in Physics at Cambridge University that he set up his own company in London. From an unassuming building in Clapham, he built a globally recognised brand that occupies a unique position within the highly technical world of film making.
It was from that first lab that Ray Dolby started working on his noise reduction technology and filing for patents, he ended up with over 50. He constantly looked to improve audio and with each innovation, he set the gold standard for sound. He was awarded an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and an OBE; he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and is due to have a Hollywood Walk of Fame star unveiled in 2014. Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $2.3bn. Not a bad life's work all around, eh?
Not only did he achieve a phenomenal amount himself, he inspired others too. He never stopped inventing, tackling problems and creating solutions. He leaves behind a company he started from scratch on the top floor of a house on the Wandsworth Road that now employs over 1300 people worldwide.
Furthermore, his legacy has left behind the next leap in technology. The very topic that I originally intended to write about has all the Dolby hallmarks of a game-changing development in cinema sound. A brief word on Dolby ATMOS; a new sound system that essentially doubles the number of speakers in the cinema that geographically surround you (behind the screen, under the screen, along the side walls, back of the auditorium and two lines of overhead speakers). All of those speakers are working in harmony and mixed accordingly. This allows sound designers to mix the audio to specific zones or even individual speaker and can pin-point objects anywhere in the room, enhancing the picture for a fully immersive experience. If you look closely at the picture of the Dolby screening room below, you can see the side, rear and the 2 lines of overhead speakers.
My original intention for this humble blog was to compare ATMOS to 3D, the latter being the supposed magic bullet for studios battling piracy. However, there is no comparison; for me, ATMOS transformed my cinematic experience, while the jury is still out on 3D. What can I say about the demo itself? It's incredible. It immerses you in the story, it certainly gives you something you can't get at home, and cinemas should be installing the system into as many screens as possible.
In an interview with Post Magazine, the saintly Danny Boyle said this about sound: "I actually believe -- and we don't realise this as an audience -- that it's at least 70 percent of a film, if not more". His last film, Trance, was one of the first to use the new system with acclaimed Sound Designer Glenn Freemantle. The legacy of Ray Dolby continues to enthuse film makers and delight the audience.
As an inventor and business leader, Ray Dolby achieved great heights and motivated those around him to keep developing and pushing the boundaries. Staff at Dolby tell me that he was and will continue to be, an inspiration to them.
From his noise reduction technology, to Surround Sound, to Digital Cinema, to his parting gift, Dolby ATMOS, no other individual has done more for sound technology.
Pioneer, leader, innovator. RIP Ray Dolby.