Two members of Digitalfishphones' collection of freeware audio plug-ins, Blockfish and Dominion, have become my first choice for certain dynamics-shaping applications "in-the-box," standing up to both high-end software such as Waves' Renaissance Compressor and VST stomp-boxes like CamelPhat.
Blockfish is a mono/stereo compressor, with VCA and Opto simulation modes, knobs to control compression amount, response time, and some interesting options: low cut, air, saturation, and a "complex" button, which sounds like a multiband mode. Low cut affects the detection circuit (similar to the Drawmer/Mercenary 1969) and sounds pretty subtle. But air and saturation are really where this compressor excels. A slider allows one to "open" the front and tweak parameters inside. While the saturation amount can be set on the front panel, you have to go inside to set the frequency emphasized most by saturation (which has an effective range from low end snare wallop, to high-mid acoustic guitar balls), as well as the dynamic saturation amount. Air frequency can also be set (air mostly sounds like a distorted ring modulator, but can be keen in the right dose).
To cut to the chase: Blockfish has saved the day on acoustic guitar tracks when I wanted to blend mic'ed and DI'ed signals. The saturation and air effects were able to get rid of that nasty acoustic direct sound everyone hates, and the VCA compression in complex mode gave the guitar the prominent place in the mix it deserved. I've also had some success using Blockfish as a brightening compressor on darkly miced vocals - in Opto mode the compressor can be transparent and musical.
Domain is a unique animal. The developer calls it a signal modeling device. Its best feature is the ability to control the volume envelope of the input signal. This can beat a gate in some circumstances. The plug-in allows you to control the attack and sustain of a signal more or less independently of its overall level. The attack of a snare drum hit can be amplified or attenuated by a wide range of levels, for times ranging from the very short to a few hundred milliseconds. Also, the sustain of the drum can be boosted or attenuated for a selectable amount of time. The results can be anything from muffling to explosive. After the envelope stage comes a saturation and high-frequency exciter stage similar to that of Blockfish, although more suited to the processing done by Dominion. Dominion will also run in both mono and stereo modes, but is not yet available for AudioUnits.
For me, Dominion has become essential in making sampled drums jump out of a mix (sometimes to an absurd degree), and I find that its envelope follower is sensitive enough to boost ghost hits on a mic'ed snare, along with their louder cousins. The one caveat is that with an effect that sounds this cool and unusual, it is easy to go overboard, and then you'll have to go back and tweak your mix again the next day... In short, both these plug-ins are must have's if you are working with VST or AudioUnits. And at the price, who can argue?