dumb question about gain and preamps

It is my understanding that "unity" gain means that the signal strength at output is the same as at input. So if my pre-amp goes to 99, and the manual says unity gain is at 85 does this mean that at numbers below 85, the pre-amp is attenuating the signal strength, and at levels above 85 it is increasing the signal strength?

-- Al
A subtle distinction..."Unity gain" means that the VOLTAGE out is the same as the voltage in. The output impedance, which you might call the "strength" of the signal, is usually much lower. That's the purpose of a unity gain output stage
the only dumb question is the one not asked!

pardon any redundancies...
Is it possible to have gain without distortion to the signal, asked another way, is a preamp without gain less distorted assuming similar quality attentuators? Or asked another way, can active amp be more accurate than a passive assuming to impedance matching issues?
Pubul57 -- I would put it that an active gain stage (which as you realize is required if gain is to be greater than one) will inevitably have at least some tiny amount of various kinds of distortion, and a passive preamp will inevitably have at least some tiny amount of impedance matching issues.

But good design of the active stage, and proper application of a passive preamp (short cable lengths, high input impedance of the component it is driving, etc.) will in both cases make the issues audibly insignificant based on known science.

Which does not necessarily mean that they will sound the same, given for instance the claims by many audiophiles that audible differences can be perceived even between different brands of high quality resistors, between different orientations of the fuses in the back of the equipment, etc.

While I would consider some (but certainly not all) such claims to be not well founded (translation: nonsense), it seems clear that known science and known forms of distortion cannot explain everything about the differences we hear between audio components.

-- Al
So most pre-amps actually provide much more attenuation than amplification

Typically yes, but it depends on the max voltage output of the source and the input sensitivity of the amp (the voltage required to drive it to full power). With Redbook CD having 2 volts as the full scale output voltage and many amps having an input sensitivity much less than that, most preamps have way more gain that will ever be used. And this kind of poor gain matching leads to very limited volume control. You see this all the time here in the forum where folks have tried mixing preamps and amps, have no volume control and end up looking for inline attenuators.