Ka-ching! of Pop

Willie Wilcox brings gritty rock experience to the production of slot-machine music

Over at the Bally building, on what’s referred to as Slot Row (across from McCarran International Airport on Sunset Road, where gaming companies Konami and International Game Technology have set up shop in several neighboring office parks), the man responsible for developing slot machine music for Bally Technologies works in a windowless office humming with Macs. A slot surround-sound chair is positioned mere feet from his workstation, so he can take a seat and calibrate an ideal mix. He has Pro Tools open on dual 24-inch flat-panel monitors so he can tinker with sounds that resemble a laser gun blasting. He’s working on a “non-rock Bally game,” but the details are top secret.

His name is John “Willie” Wilcox, and in a past musical life he played drums for Hall & Oates, Bette Midler and power-pop maestro Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, where he banged away on a space-age kit called the Trapparatus. But the days of slugging it out on tour and on Broadway are behind him.

As his futuristic instrument suggests, the New Jersey-born musician has always been interested in technology. He was one of the very first record-company staff songwriters to use exclusively digital means in composing and recording. He wrote tunes for a slew of artists—including Meat Loaf, Mick Jagger, Luther Vandross and Natalie Cole. But the electro-pop song that best sums up Wilcox’s approach and optimism is Stacey Q’s 1986 hit “We Connect,” a percussive confection about how technology brings us closer together.

When Utopia disbanded in the mid-’80s, Wilcox moved to Miami to launch Lincoln Road Studios, an audio-postproduction company specializing in TV music. Wilcox’s clients included MTV, Coca-Cola, Target and America’s Most Wanted. That led to a stint as NBC/Universal’s senior composer and sound designer, where he branded music for everything from Mad Money to the Sci-Fi Channel.

After five years of composing and sound-designing for network television, Wilcox formed his own company, Willie Wilcox Music. “I felt a commitment to a niche market—the branding of music for media content and celebrities—was the direction I wanted to take,” Wilcox says.

One of his first clients was boxer Manny Pacquiao, who wanted a new fight-entrance theme. Looking for a new challenge, and because of Pacquiao’s frequent trips to Vegas, Wilcox moved here to work as Bally’s audio director and serve as the creative force behind the sounds of slots. In Wilcox’s eyes, it’s a perfect marriage of music and technology.

“I don’t have any preconceptions about making slot machines,” he says before a recent shareholder’s meeting. “I bring my real-world experience to the process, borrow from the past in terms of how I make music, and try to assimilate my ideas into what the company needs for its slots.”

What the company needed was a Michael Jackson game, and Wilcox delivered the audio component, spending a year developing it. Using all the original and licensed music tracks supplied by the record label, he fashioned a mix—not in stereo, but a true, original, surround-sound mix that took into account all the separate elements of each of the game’s five tracks.

And the result is stunning. Bally’s Michael Jackson King of Pop slot-machine game chair, which debuted at the Global Gaming Expo this fall, offers the rush of pleasure that comes with being engulfed in cinema digital surround sound. Every minute aspect of funk song “Smooth Criminal” is audible—layered snare-drum hits, nimble synth-doubled bass, interweaving rhythm-guitar licks. You can almost make out Jackson’s handclaps and foot-stomps. Clips from the music video and other Jackson-related themes appear onscreen—until the moment Jackson fires a Tommy gun across the dance floor, and the burst reverberates through the chair.

“We had to represent Michael’s music as it was originally recorded,” Wilcox says. “Obviously it wasn’t written for a slot machine. So the challenge of this project was to keep his music intact—not only for integrity purposes, but for the fans.”

In addition to fidelity to the original music, Wilcox gave King of Pop its own pacing. He arranged Jackson’s songs so they build momentum throughout the game, similar to the way a DJ works a dance floor. The beginning portions of the game offer a lower energy feel, such as with the cool, vibey song, “Dirty Diana.”

“It has a looping beat that gets you in a zone,” Wilcox says. “You can sit there and want to play more. It leaves you somewhere to go emotionally.”

During the project, Wilcox was emotionally impacted by listening to Jackson’s lead vocals, by hearing his passion and intensity. “Jackson always had energy onstage,” he says. “But he also brought it to the studio. You can hear his heart and soul.”

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