Fifty Years of Cassette Tape & The Genius Of Ray Dolby
By James Grahame
I don't like writing obituaries, simply because I see Retro Thing as a celebration of technology from decades past, not a stern-faced memorial chapel. So instead of mourning the death of Ray Dolby – the founder of Dolby Laboratories and inventory of Dolby noise reduction – let's mark the 50th anniversary of the compact cassette and thank Mr. Dolby for helping to make it a commercial hit.
Yes, it's been fifty years since the first portable cassette recorder hit the market. At the time, it was one of several competing cartridge-based formats designed to simplify tape recording. RCA had developed a magazine-style system in 1958, and several German companies began pushing to develop a standard.
Philips unveiled their compact cassette in 1963. They approached Sony after realizing that Japanese acceptance of the new format was essential. After some hardball negotiation, Philips agreed to license the system to Sony without royalties. In fact, by 1965 Philips had opened the format up to other manufacturers free of charge.
This is usually the part of the story where the knight rides off into the sunset after slaying the dragon and having his way with the princess. However, that almost didn't happen.
It took electronic magic from Dolby Labs to make the cassette format a smash hit.
Until the mid-1970s the compact cassette was bloody awful, with poor fidelity and lots of tape hiss. It was really only suitable for voice recording and dictation; golden eared hi-fi enthusiasts preferred proper reel-to-reel tape decks and carefully preserved vinyl.
Things changed with the introduction of Dolby noise reduction, but it took almost a decade. The company's first tape noise reduction system – Dolby A – was introduced in 1966 and quickly became a standard in recording studios around the world. The quad-band system was too complex for consumer products, however.
Dolby B was the company's first system for the consumer market, developed in 1968. It offered only a single sliding band of noise reduction, but it was inexpensive and significantly improved the fidelity of cassette tapes. By the mid-1970s, Dolby B was used on nearly all pre-recorded tapes and the company's technology appeared in all but the cheapest playback decks.
The exploding popularity of boomboxes in the late 1970s, followed shortly after by the runaway success of the Sony Walkman and car cassette decks made the cassette format incredibly popular throughout the 1980s. But let's not forget the role Ray Dolby played in shifting the compact cassette from a dictation format to something that was almost – but not quite – high fidelity.
Ray Dolby passed away in San Fransisco, California on September 12, 2013, at the age of 80. He was the co-inventor of video tape recording while at Ampex and went on to found Dolby Laboratories, a company specializing in noise reduction and digital audio encoding.