In the middle of a pecan ranch in Tornillo, Texas — 30 miles east of El Paso — you'll find Sonic Ranch, the largest residential recording studio in the world. The studio's owner, Tony Rancich, is the grandson of the ranch's founder, and here on his family's property he runs one of the most accommodating and amazing studios you'll ever find. Touring the grounds and the four studios (and mastering suite) with Tony we found Pat Dillett [Tape Op #79] mixing and album for Mexican pop star Benny Ibarra and a metal band from Italy laying down blistering basics.
Tony's generous and enthusiastic vibe guides this unique place, and you can see why bands like Sublime with Rome, Hanson, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Old 97's, Animal Collective, Mudvayne, Cannibal Corpse, and The Mountain Goats would choose to come here to focus and make great recordings.
You were raised on this ranch?
You must have gained some interest in music and recording along the way.
When I was in sixth grade I learned to play the guitar. I was 15 when I got a tape recorder and I started to record my own stuff. We had a house in El Paso so we could go to the better schools. We'd go up there during the weekday then come back down here. After a while all the musicians in town started coming to me. I rented several houses in El Paso; one of them is near where Al Jourgensen lives now. It's a stone house and we set up the studio in the living room.
Where was work coming from? Was it just local, at that point?
Yes, locally. There were a lot of local bands doing things. Of course I wasn't getting a lot of money, but I was just16or17yearsold-I didn't need a lot. But I saw the feasibility of it. I decided to take it to the next level and I engaged an acoustic design company out of San Antonio to help with the sound. I picked 25 locations, all through El Paso and out here at the ranch. Our one building that is partially underground; at that time it only had one big room. But I walked them through and they said, "Out of the 25 locations you've taken us to, this is it." So they laid out the design, I built that, and I was off and running with an 8-track studio.
How old were you at that point?
I was 18 by the time it was running and going well. It's really a story of evolution from there. After that we went to a 16-track. Then I got a Trident board and a Studer A827 tape deck. A friend of mine found an SSL board in Canada — a doctor who had gotten roped into it by his accountant needed to get out of it. [laughter] So we went to Canada and purchased that and we continued to make deals on equipment from there. By the early '90s we were starting to do major label work. We had producers like Neil Kernon, who'd worked at Trident Studios. He found us in '92 or '93 and ended up bringing 64 major projects here, so he kept the studio booked. And then word of mouth kept getting around. As other producers came and worked here, they saw how productive they could be. There are no distractions. In the meantime, I continued to amass guitars, drums, keyboards and so on.
Say if you were in L.A. or New York, you'd hire out to rent things. But around here there's no "hire" company.
Yeah! [laughter] First of all, to get a great sound you have to have a great source. So we concentrated on getting great guitars and amps. Then you need a great room, of course. We expanded the amp and drum collection. I started to see what people wanted. When producers and engineers came, they'd mention more to me. As they went, I started adding all these things. The goal was to have everything here. Marco [A. Ramirez] tunes all the rooms regularly, so we keep everything very accurate. Justin [Leeah] started working here and we learned Pro Tools. Producers started coming from all over the world. Now we have Italian producers, Argentinean producers, and so on. Each of them will book two, three or six months a year. A lot of people who come from the heavy music crowd also found us. And then other independent genres found us, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Conor Oberst. It's all word of mouth. You can't really sell this. When other musicians tell each other, it's a different thing; like when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs told Conor to come here to record and Conor put it up on his website. Producers tell musicians to come here. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can get.
Do you feel you're able to offer good rates by being out here?
We don't have L.A. real estate prices or rent. We can do things for less and we have a total package thing here that's great. If you go to L.A., you're most likely renting a hotel room, and everyone's going out for meals and losing time in doing so. Here we have these beautiful Spanish haciendas that were built in the '30s and are all vibed-out. We have antiques and original Salvador Dalis! We have a swimming pool, workout equipment, a ping-pong table, a basketball court, and mountain bikes. It's a package deal! [laughter] We've got five studios, and the goal is to keep them all booked. We try to accommodate different budgets for different situations. And everything is all-in; everything is included. We don't charge extra to use special mics or guitars. People like it because they know what they're getting into and they know there aren't going to be any surprises.
What do you do about feeding people?
We have cooks here. At breakfast everyone comes to the main dining room. There's pizza available. We've got four refrigerators, just in this house. And then we've got three other houses that are also stocked! All you have to worry about when you come here is to record and create. It's a great social atmosphere here too, as you've probably gathered from walking around.
It's wonderful! There are people from other countries working on completely different projects.
If a band wants privacy, we can arrange for that. Other bands like the communal aspect and camaraderie.
Do you get people dropping in and guesting on other people's sessions?
Yeah. And people love hanging out and cooking for each other. The Italians cook amazing meals for everyone! It's great in all those aspects.
How are so many jobs coming from other countries to a studio near El Paso?
It's a crossroads. I'm fluent in Spanish and so are the other engineers here. We've got a reputation for that. We're famous in Spain and we've done the major artists from Spanish- speaking countries. This band in right now came from Italy, just to work here. A lot of those producers will want them to come here. They'll tell their artists, "Look, I only work at Sonic Ranch." We have a reputation with a lot of British producers; they've also found their way here. It's a favorable exchange rate for the pound and the euro. People are typically more productive here because everything is included. There are distractions available, if people want to party. The nice thing is that people can swim, mountain bike, or watch TV in their rooms — but they're easy to find when it's time to go back to work! [laughter]
Does anyone ever get a little stir-crazy?
Some people do. But remember that El Paso is right up the road and any distraction you could want is available there. We just had Mudvayne here for five months last year, writing and recording. You can find a balance and most people enjoy the unique atmosphere. You can really figure out how you feel here. It is nice and peaceful, but you can always go for the distractions.
Did you have to tell your folks to move out because you were taking this place over?
Certain family members owned this house, but they went and bought other homes because they didn't want to live here. I bought out this particular complex over a period of time. Even as a teenager I had the vision of buying the house and fixing it up so that people could come and record.
Are you doing any engineering or production yourself these days?
I'm not doing as much anymore. I'm so busy running the studio and the ranch, plus other businesses. But I will pick two or three projects a year. We'll also do band development. We've got a band in El Paso we're working with that we're excited about. At The Drive-In, Sparta, and Mars Volta all came out of El Paso, so there is a scene here. We do work with producers and other production companies in participation with that too — developing artists. Mind you, we can't do too much of that; but we will pick certain projects that we feel very strongly about. We've got a pretty good track record. I worked with British producer Steven Stewart-Short — he's now a manager in L.A. and he's developed several bands through here. He books several projects here a year.
So you have four studios and a mastering room. Do they stay fairly full?
Yes. Typically we'll have at least one or two rooms booked. Last week all five rooms were booked.
Is it a lot of juggling to schedule everything?
It is. I try to arrange as much as I can in advance. Whatever we can do to make it all work. It's smooth and we keep everyone happy. It's more than recording — it's an experience here. This atmosphere brings a certain creativity and reality to the projects. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have attributed this place to helping them write those songs. Mudvayne wrote their album here. We have people coming here just to write. Some people also want to rent the space for tour rehearsals.
This is a period where people are talking about larger studios going away and it seems like you've only grown.
What do you see that's working here. It's obviously word of mouth...
The fact that this is such a unique situation. We have two of the most prestigious vintage Neve consoles in the world. We have all of these instruments. And, because of where we're located, we can ultimately give good rates. We own the equipment. We own the land. We have a great staff. Everyone gives beyond 100%. A lot of bands will come here for the people. It's a total experience. Once you've worked here and see the product you take out, you come back. People tell other people. Certain genres know us. Neil Kernon brought a lot of heavy music here. Then some large Christian projects came our way. We do the top Mexican artists. The indie bands have come. We're not drawing from one genre; it's coming from a lot of pools.
How have you dealt with the finances?
I've been very careful. I never went out and bought a new console. In all these rooms the console has been the last step. We made sure that they sounded great. We tested the rooms and everything. I've spent a year and half before, looking at almost every console in the world to find the best deals. A lot of things have been purchased over the course of the last 20 years...
Does equipment sometimes come through bands?
Ministry came and did a series of projects. They were living on the property for two years. They brought most of their equipment from their studio in Chicago. Al [Jourgensen] did not want to do a studio at the time, and his type of production didn't require vintage Pultecs and so on. We were able to buy or trade for a lot of that equipment. There are different stories for all these acquisitions! [laughter] You've got to look around and find your best deal. You buy great vintage gear, and it usually doesn't go down in value. I've been concentrating on the vintage end for the past 20 years. In the digital realm, people still want to go through vintage gear. All the warmth and great sound is there.
How many people work with you full-time at Sonic Ranch?
There are four full-time engineers. We also have four full-time housekeepers and cooks. And a gardener, Isaac — he's a mystical figure! This whole area has a Carlos Castaneda feel to it. We'll go out to the water tower at sunset and you can almost see to Mexico! There's so much history. El Paso means "The Pass," so everyone came through here 400 years ago.
Plus the Rio Grande River being nearby; there has always been culture around that.
Exactly. It's truly a one-of-a-kind setup and atmosphere. How could you duplicate it?
It seems like a long way from a kid growing up on a ranch and working as a cowboy in the summer to having a complex like this. What do you think of your journey, so far?
It seems like a natural thing. I was on a horse until about 12-years old, and ever since I turned 13 I've been focused on music. I still love the other end, but it's all about music. It's showed me realities that I did not have close to me, growing up in West Texas. I could experience these other realities, shown to me through music, and it reinforced what I was feeling inside. The music community is comprised of the best people in the world. They're really special and unique. We have an open-door policy with bands that have recorded here. We welcome them to stop in if they're traveling along the I-10. It's a community.