#1
Long time everyone.

I've had an ME-50 for a long time now, and I use it in conjunction with my 3 year old Traynor YCS50 combo. I had fallen in love with the simulated "BD-2" setting on the OD/DS section, and I always like a little slap back delay and reverb. However the ME-50 really lacked a good Wah sound, and as my amp has an effects loop, I wanted to take advantage of that, and since I can't cut my ME-50 into two neat pieces, I splurged today on:

1.) BOSS Blues Driver BD-2
2.) TC Electronic Flashback delay pedal (expensive...)

Well, after playing my amp for the first time in a while on the drive channel (I usually run the ME-50 through the clean channel), I began noticing some flubby/flabby, crackly sounds, especially when I played lower notes. It wasn't too loud or crazy, just at the loudest part of the note it would crackle and...flab. The clean channel didn't have the same problem, but I couldn't really get a feel for the sound of the BD-2 on said channel.

Anyway, I took a picture of the 3 12AX7s that have been in it since day one. The middle one is much dimmer than the surrounding two. I did the pencil eraser test on the preamp and power tubes: no sounds whatsoever.

Does this sound and/or look like a dying preamp tube?
Attachments:
Bad Preamp Tubes.jpg
#2
I can't diagnose a problem like that over the internet, but I suggest switching out that tube and checking the result. If you don't keep spare tubes around, switch it with V1--then, if it was that tube, the problem should appear on both channels.
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#3
I ended up replacing all the 12AX7s, and I was still not satisfied with the Blues Driver + OD channel.

A friend was over last night and we drunkenly goofed with all the settings on the amp. This afternoon, I turned it on, clean channel, gain up on amp and Blues Driver at about 3 o'clock. Switched to 15-watt mode, and it sounded great, just had to be a little loud!

I have some new 5881 power tubes coming in, but I was confused on "Hard" vs "Soft". I got the ones with tons of clean head room on accident. I'll have to see if I like them.
#4
Well most of your overdrive in new amps comes from the pre amp so the extra head room probably wont hurt you in your gain quest.

Tube amps always sound better loud, so when you get the chance crank it. The louder the better. Unless you start having hearing problems. Then just get ear plugs. haha