Ray Dolby R.I.P.

Ray Dolby, the inventor of the Dolby noise reduction systems, deceased on September 12, 2013 at the age of 80 from the effects of Alzheimer’s and leukaemia.


One of the coolest inventions of my youth: cassettes. Daily I was recording music from the radio by pressing the pause button every time I heard some I like. I bought the first Sony Walkman when it came out. A device which made listening very private – thanks to the headphones – and mobile since you could take that recorder anywhere. Here in the Netherlands we love to bike, so lots of people used the Walkman as a soundtrack device to get to school or work. And so did I.

The cassette would never be a success without the great invention of Ray Dolby. Although he started with professional Dolby A, Dolby B turned out to be the best compromise for noise reduction and compatibility. Dolby C was an improvement on B and my preferred choice when I started to use a much better cassette deck. I still own a fantastic Nakamichi Cassette Deck 2 for all the cassettes I still own.

The basic technique of a Dolby system is brilliant and rather simple at the same time. Ray understood that because tape has a lot of self-noise you needed to push the sound you’re recording to the loudest level or else it will be buried in noise. But getting a loud level is tricky because the headroom of tape is rather limited. It’s easy to overdrive the tape.

What Ray did is adding high frequencies to a signal when recording (indeed, that makes the headroom issue a bit more tricky) and filtering them on output. As a result because of the filtering the self-noise of the tape was filtered as well. And this was rather effective because it did result in less noise.

Even ’till this day I love the sound and look and feel of cassettes.

Ray Dolby deceased on September 12, 2013 at the age of 80 from the effects of Alzheimer’s and leukaemia. I want to thank him for making cassettes so enjoyable!

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