Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Willie Wilcox played drums behind some of the hottest musicians of the 1970s, including Todd Rundgren and Meatloaf. He has even drummed alongside Ringo Starr.
But after switching gears to mix chart-topping dance hits and soundtracks for MTV and Nickelodeon television shows, Wilcox landed in Las Vegas three years ago to begin yet another new gig — engineering musical licks for slot machines.
"I try to take the same methods of writing hit songs and apply them here," Wilcox said inside a recording studio at Bally Technologies, where he serves as senior audio director. "Of course, if I had the secret of writing a hit song, I wouldn't be here. But most people will agree that they all have the same characteristics of a melody, a rhythm and a lyric that sticks in your mind."
And sometimes, Wilcox introduces music to slot machines that already has topped the charts.
One of Wilcox's greatest hits on the slot circuit is a Michael Jackson game that debuted last fall. It's the first surround sound slot, where the music of the King of Pop literally engulfs the player, coming from both the machine and speakers inside an electronic chair that pulsates with every bonus. Jackson's famous yelps and hoots pulsate throughout the game, which launches video segments from "Beat It" or "Smooth Criminal" when players win.
To create the surround sound experience, Wilcox had to get every track of the original recordings from Sony and the Jackson estate and remix them. Astute listeners will hear Jackson's voice coming from in front of them, while the crisp sounds of the instruments pump from the sides and behind them.
"The challenge was to take this iconic music and have people experience it like they never have before," Wilcox said. "You've heard 'Beat It' before, but you've never heard it like this."
Wilcox also worked to preserve Jackson's music for his fans, who he was aware might look skeptically on the favorite music of their childhood being used for a casino game.
"His music is sacred to all of his fans," Wilcox said. "The question was, how do I take Michael's music and put it where it was never intended to be — in a video game — without it sounding chopped up or disrespectful? That was the No. 1 goal."
Wilcox knows about the artists' side of pop music. On Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell" album, he contributed to one of the top-selling pop albums of all time. He spent much of the 1970s and '80s playing for Rundgren's Utopia, which was also the backing band for Hall and Oates' 1974 LP "War Babies."
While playing with Rundgren until the early 1990s, Wilcox devised some of the most creative drum sets in rock 'n' roll, including one built to resemble a motorcycle chassis. He was a staff writer for Geffen and Warner Brothers records and produced Stacey Q's 1986 dance hit "We Connect."
But bringing Michael Jackson to the casino floor presented special concerns.
Yes, slot machines signal wins with bells, a sound that didn't necessarily lend itself to Jackson's music. But as a percussionist, Wilcox also knew that ringing also was a rhythm, made as effective with the chink of cymbals as clanging.
"I wanted people to feel the bells, not hear them," Wilcox said. "I wanted them to recognize that something had happened in the game while not distracting from Michael's music."
It's all a part of the new soundtrack of casinos.
Wilcox used the guitar riffs of fellow Las Vegas musician Paul Crook to design rock sounds for Bally's Money Vault game. He brought a contemporary vibe to the game Code Red by using Auto-Tune, a pitch-correcting program, and tricks from his electronic dance background to create a sample of music for a game feature known as Touch and Slide — a video wheel that players simulate spinning by touching the screen.
The snippet became one of his biggest hits around the Bally offices.
"Some of the people are using it as their ring tone," he said.