If you were born some time after, oh, let’s
say 1988, then when you see this symbol, the Dolby logo, you probably think of a movie
theater or DVD with Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound, or perhaps Dolby’s newer technologies
such as Atmos or Dolby Vision HDR. So you might be a little surprised to see
it on an old cassette tape. What’s it doing there? Well, Dolby didn’t start out in the movie
business. In fact, they started in the business of sound. I suppose that’s not a surprise, after all
that’s pretty much exactly what they do today, but their first product had nothing
to do with surround sound, movies, or anything high-tech like that. Their first product was Dolby Noise Reduction. Ray Dolby started the company in 1965, and
their first product was the Dolby 301 unit, a machine designed to help eliminate tape
noise. With magnetic tape, the random structure of
the particles that make up the tape create an audible signal that we don’t want, a
quiet but still noticeable noise that sounds like a hiss. This noise is always there, again due to the
structure of the tape itself. During loud sections of a recording, it’s
not that noticeable because compared the the signal, it’s barely perceptible. But during quiet parts of a song, it becomes
much more of a problem. Through the magic of video editing, I’m
going to take the audio from this video and slap it on a cassette so you hear what this
noise sounds like. There. That’s, better? Well I suppose it’s actually worse, but
there you go, that’s the problem. This tape noise permeates all recordings,
and particularly in quiet or silent portions, it’s quite noticeable. Ray Dolby wanted to figure out a way to get
rid of it. His solution is quite elegant. First, let me turn on Dolby Noise Reduction
so you can hear the difference. There, that is better. Now the noise is much less noticeable. It’s still there, sure, but it’s definitely
not as annoying. But what’s most interesting is the fact
that the actual signal we wanted is unaffected. I don’t sound any different now that we’re
using noise reduction, the only thing that happened is now you can hear me better because
the noise has gone away. So how does this work? Well, the first thing Dolby did was to figure
out what the tape noise was. By using spectral analysis of a blank tape,
you can see what sound frequencies make up the noise. Therefore, you can get a noise profile. Once Dolby had figured out the particular
frequencies that made up the sound, it was simply a matter of using an equalizer to tune
out those frequencies. You’ve probably used an equalizer before
as they come built into many music playing applications such as iTunes and the like. The equalizer has a slider for particular
ranges of sound frequencies, and you can either boost each band or suppress it. Dolby noise reduction is a lot like taking
the frequencies that make up noise and tuning them down a lot to make the noise quieter. OK, so let’s do that. (pause) Now the noise is a lot less noticeable,
But we have a new problem. Now the sound we want is dull, and my voice
sounds muffled. This isn’t really any better, it’s just
a different problem. So how come nothing changed when we used it
the first time? Let me turn that back off. Nothing changed the first time because Dolby
Noise Reduction is actually a two way process. In order for it to work, the recording also
has to be processed with Dolby NR. During recording, the Dolby Chip inside the
cassette deck actually does the opposite of what it does during playback. Instead of cutting the frequencies associated
with noise, it boosts them. Now I’ll turn on Dolby noise reduction at
the time of recording, but I’ll play the tape back without Dolby turned on. (pause) Now my voice sounds really harsh, with ess
sounds being particularly annoying. The ess sound is so satisfactorily nasty such
that some sadistic, senseless sad sack might succumb to the sickening task of overusing
these sounds to facilitate the driving of a point home. (clears throat) Yes, but there is a reason
for this. By over-boosting these frequencies during
recording, we eliminate the problem of a dull recording when using noise reduction. Let’s look at the equalizer again. This is what happens when we use dolby during
playback. These frequencies are pulled down to kill
the noise. But by doing this, we also pull down any components
of the signal , that is the sounds that we want, that lie within that range. But if you boost the frequencies that lie
in the spectrum with the noise while recording, you end up with a recording that has these
particular frequencies recorded too loud. Then, when you pull those frequencies down
during playback, you not only pull the noise down and make it quieter, but you also bring
the boosted parts of the signal down back to where they should be. In essence, the boosting of sounds we want
during recording is canceled out bringing them back to normal during playback. Because any components of the signal that
lie within the noise profile are boosted to compensate for the noise reduction, the effect
is that only the noise is reduced. The signal remains intact. This is a process known as companding. The dynamic range of the recording, that is
the difference between loud and soft sounds, it compressed during recording because some
frequencies are recorded louder than they should be. Then during playback, the dynamic range is
expanded by lowering those frequencies, and thus the noise floor. There is a catch, though. Because some sounds are boosted by the dolby
circuitry when recording, the record levels that you use must be reduced a little bit
to ensure they don’t get distorted. That’s why the Dolby symbol usually appears
on the level meter of a tape deck–this is the point on the meter that should not be
exceeded when using noise reduction. When setting the level for recording, you’d
want the meter to just barely touch it at the loudest sections. The Dolby system used on consumer machines
like this wasn’t the best Dolby had to offer. Dolby A noise reduction is what Ray Dolby
first invented, and was what was found in the professional recording studio. But Dolby-B, what’s used on the vast majority
of cassettes, worked pretty well, and it was a lot simpler and thus cheaper to implement. Later consumer systems, such as Dolby C and
Dolby S, further improved on the noise reduction process. Dolby C came about in 1980, and it worked
very well, about 60 % better than B. The problem with Dolby C, however, was that on non-compatible
equipment, the tape sounds really weird. Have a listen. Here’s a clip of some music from the YouTube
Audio Library. Now here’s what it sounds like on a Dolby-C
encoded tape, played back without Dolby circuitry. That’s messed up. Turning on Dolby B helped a little, but not
much. Dolby C used a much more complicated process
to reduce noise, and that’s why recordings made with it are less compatible. It also meant that pre-recorded tapes didn’t
shift to Dolby C, since no one wants to buy music that doesn’t sound any good, and even
fewer people were willing to put down the money for a new cassette deck. The next consumer development, Dolby S, was
supposedly so good that with a decent quality Chromium tape, you couldn’t tell the difference
between a cassette encoded with Dolby S and a CD. It also was more compatible with Dolby B equipment,
not suffering from the distortion of dolby C. The problem with Dolby S, though, was that
it came about far too late, in 1989, with the CD already having found a prominent place
in the market. The best noise-reduction technologies, such
as those used in the professional Dolby SR or the competing DBX system, used very aggressive
companding. The idea is to keep the signal recorded on
the tape loud relative to the noise at all times. Remember, in loud sections of the recording,
the noise isn’t noticeable compared to the signal. So the best possible system would make the
recording loud all the time, and during playback could tell which parts were intended to be
quiet and thus lower the volume of the whole signal back to normal, therefore making the
noise practically imperceptible. Though this isn’t quite how companding is
accomplished in the best systems, the effect is similar. But the problem with using this technique
is that listening to a DBX encoded tape without a DBX capable decoder is very unpleasant. The same goes for Dolby SR. And that’s precisely why the better systems
never took off in the consumer space. Dolby B was simple and still pretty effective,
but best of all a Dolby-B encoded tape could be played back on a standard cassette deck
with reasonable results, again with the only difference being an over-emphasis of the treble
sounds. And with most stereos having a bass and treble
adjustment, just slightly turning down the treble would bring the sound back to more
or less normal while still providing some noise reduction, of course the noise reduction
you’d get would be less precise and effective. We don’t use noise reduction any more because,
well, noise isn’t a problem any more. Now that we use digital sound in virtually
all applications, there’s no need to add this sort of complex circuitry. But I’m still impressed by the elegant solution
to the problem. Automatic pre-emphasis of sounds within the
noise profile when recording and then de-emphasis when playing it back is so delightfully simple,
effective, and logical, that I can’t help but admire it. Thanks for watching. If you like this sort of video, be sure to
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coming your way. If you have ideas of what to explore next,
leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them. I’ll see you next time!