Audio Vitamins have introduced Contra Free, a freeware feature-limited version of their commercial Contra (£40) mixing utility and plugin wrapper for Windows and Mac OS based DAWs.
Contra can do a number of useful things, although its main purpose is comparing multiple plugins (or different settings of a single plugin) in order to help the users come up with important mix decisions. The full version of Contra can be used to compare up to eight different plugin slots, whereas Contra Free offers only three slots. In addition, the full version can do longer loops (up to 32 bars per plugin slot).
So, how does the plugin work? Once the plugin is loaded for the first time, you can tell it to scan your computer for VST plugins and add them to its internal plugin list. After that’s done, you can load the different effects (up to three slots are available in the freeware version, as mentioned above) and adjust the parameters for each plugin to your liking. Once you’re happy with the settings, push the play button in your DAW and activate the loop in Contra. This way, Contra will solo each plugin for a certain number of bars (as determined by the loop length parameter setting), letting you decide which setting and/or plugin sounds best in your mix. In other words, it automates the process of soloing each plugin manually in your mixer, thus making it easier to focus completely on the sound of each plugin.
What’s really cool, though, is that Contra also provides automatic gain matching of the active slots, so that your ears (providing that the automatic matching is done right) shouldn’t be fooled by different loudness settings of different effects. In addition, Contra will match the delay compensation for every plugin in the chain, so that the transitions between the plugins are completely seamless (otherwise, the loop would be choppy if a particular plugin had higher latency). In terms of stability and CPU usage, I didn’t run into any issues while testing Contra. The CPU hit is almost non-existent and I didn’t run into any stability issues whatsoever, even during the initial plugin scan (although Contra does notify you in advance that it might freeze during the initial scan).
When the loop is switched off, Contra acts as a regular channel strip (all loaded plugins are active at the same time). Since Contra can save custom user presets which preserve the parameter settings of each loaded plugin, it can also be used as some sort of a custom multi-effect rack, as well as a tool for expanding the number of plugin slots offered by your DAW’s native mixer. In other words, you can create, for example, a custom multi-FX mastering chain in Contra and save it as a preset for later use. Nifty!
Another handy feature offered by Contra is the ability to load VST and AU plugins in Pro Tools. I’m not sure if there are any other freeware utilities out there that would let you do this, but either way, this seems like a pretty damn useful feature for Pro Tools users.
The only drawback I noticed is that it isn’t possible to choose a custom VST plugin directory for the scan. This is quite a bummer, since I keep all of my VST plugins on a separate hard drive. The developers are aware of this issue and they’re working on an update which will fix this. They explained that, since they’re Mac OS users, they overlooked the fact that Windows users can install plugins to non-default directories.
Contra Free is available for free download via Audio Vitamins (22.2 MB download size, EXE installer, 32-bit & 64-bit VST/VST3/AU/AAX plugin formats for Windows & Mac OS).