Last year, Dolby Laboratories had total sales of $926 million. Mr. Dolby’s personal fortune was estimated at more than $2 billion.
Ray Milton Dolby was born Jan. 18, 1933, in Portland, Ore., and grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. His father was a real estate broker who liked to tinker in his home shop and invited his son to join him.
“When I was 11,” Mr. Dolby told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, “I offered to pull the cylinder head of my dad’s ’32 Plymouth and do a valve job for him. I started in the morning and finished that night, alone.”
He was also interested in music from an early age and played the piano and clarinet.
“Mainly, though,” he said, “I was fascinated by the technology of music: how organs worked, how reeds vibrated, why things sounded the way they did.”
In his teens, he began working for the Ampex tape-recording company, and he had a major role in developing the first videotape recorder before he turned 21.
He served in the Army in the 1950s and graduated from Stanford University in 1957. He then worked as an engineer in England, where he received a doctorate in physics from the University of Cambridge in 1961.
While working for UNESCO in India, where he was recording local music from 1963 to 1965, Mr. Dolby conceived of a way to boost the sound levels of soft musical passages to eliminate the tape hiss. He then adjusted the sound levels for the final version of the recording, resulting in a virtually hiss-free musical experience.
He founded his company in London in 1965 and used generic names for his technology until he overheard a conversation on an elevator.
“I heard an engineer say, ‘We have to take the Dolbys from Studio A to Studio B,’ ” he once recalled. “My hair stood on end. I’d never heard my name used that way.”
From then on, his name was synonymous with sound equipment. In 1976, he moved his company to San Francisco, where he served on the boards of the city symphony and opera and contributed millions of dollars to education and medical research.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Dagmar Baumert Dolby of San Francisco; two sons; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Dolby resented being called a “tinkerer” and considered himself an inventor in the classic mold of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers.
“A tinkerer is someone who hopes to discover or invent something on an unprepared basis,” he said in 1988. “An inventor knows what he wants to do.”