Recording’s Great Escapes: Photos of Texas’ Sprawling Sonic Ranch
Everything’s bigger in Texas — including the recording studios. The Sonic Ranch, a sprawling compound in tiny Tornillo, about 40 miles southeast of El Paso and a short car ride from the U.S.-Mexico border, claims to be the “world’s largest residential recording studio,” with five studios and distinct mixing and mastering rooms, 35-odd bedrooms spread throughout several different structures, a pool and a basketball court, all contained within a 3,300-acre working pecan orchard that founder and proprietor Tony Rancich inherited several decades ago. Lush and green under the widest, bluest Texas sky, Sonic Ranch has served as a respite from the frenetic pace of music industry hubs for acts from Jenny Lewis to Portugal. The Man to Midland, which named its 2021 album for the place.
It’s not just the wide-open spaces and decadently appointed studios that make Sonic Ranch creatively fruitful, though, according to artists who’ve worked there: Because there is so much studio space, different artists will often stay on and record there at the same time. “It’s very much like band camp,” quips singer-songwriter Rett Madison, who was recording in Studio A during Billboard’s Zoom tour of the premises. “It feels like a really magical, peaceful place to be able to be really honest and raw and vulnerable and connect with other musicians.”
1. Studio A: The first studio on the property includes five separate spaces. Artists enter through the airy Top Room, which features a 1927 Steinway piano as well as numerous original lithographs by artists like Joan Miró and Marc Chagall, then proceed into the knotty alder-paneled control and main rooms designed by the late renowned acoustician Vincent van Haaff. “Everyone talks about the wooden smell whenever they first walk in because it’s just so amazing,” says studio intern Natalia Chernitsky. Its Back Room, which used to be a chinchilla farm, is partially underground — which Rancich says further enhances the acoustics.
2. The Hacienda: Built in the 1930s by Rancich’s grandfather, the 12-room Spanish Revival manse is adorned with antiques and original art, as well as all the amenities one expects from a well-appointed hotel. On-site chefs prepare food in one of the two kitchens for communal meals, and adjoining mixing and mastering rooms are outfitted for both intense editing and spur-of-the-moment recording sessions.
3. Neve Studio: The second studio built on the property, the Neve was also Sonic Ranch’s largest room until recently, with a chapel-like main tracking room that Koe Wetzel, Lil Yachty and Arcade Fire recently put to use. Finished in 2005, the studio is named for its console: an 80-channel vintage Neve, part of which formed the console at Motown’s West Coast studio and changed hands through Madonna and X Japan’s Yoshiki Hayashi before landing at Sonic Ranch.
It’s the crown jewel in Rancich’s vast collection of musical instruments and recording equipment, most of which have a similarly remarkable provenance and all of which are available to visiting artists. A bass that The Byrds used to record “Eight Miles High” is sitting out in one studio, and Rancich has 100 guitars and basses all stored on their own labeled shelves. “It makes a huge difference to get instruments that are truly one in a thousand,” he says.
4. Big Blue: Piece by piece, Rancich has expanded Sonic Ranch over the years, and the most recent addition is one of his most ambitious yet. After driving on a bumpy dirt road through rows of pecan trees (there is also a smoother, quicker route by highway for those in a rush), visitors arrive at another cluster of studios and housing that includes Big Blue, which was completed in April 2021 and is the property’s largest studio yet. “I knew that this would coalesce and bring things to another level,” says Rancich. “We hadn’t had a room of this size — it’s actually similar in size to Abbey Road’s smaller studio.” Expansion isn’t done yet, though; Rancich is building an elaborate workout facility for his guests, adorned with the same imported fabrics that have become the studio’s signature.
5. Adobe Bungalow: “At the end of the night, this is where the magic is,” says Rancich of the one-room studio. “People gravitate over here because of its vibe.” The 100-year-old adobe building that was once a blacksmith shop is now a cozy studio with a view of the rolling Trans-Pecos hills. “It’s like mixing two realities,” adds Chernitsky. “You go inside and have the best and most advanced equipment, but it’s totally isolated from the chaos of the world right now.”
6. The Garcia House: For artists seeking more seclusion, there’s a collection of housing options (and that basketball court) around a more isolated set of studios. Almost any kind of accommodation is possible: When Fiona Apple visited to record parts of her 2020 album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Garcia House added a fence so that her dog could be close by without any danger of getting lost on the vast property.