A multimeter is the combination of a DC voltmeter, AC voltmeter, ammeter, and ohmmeter. An un-amplified analog multimeter combines a meter movement, range resistors and switches; VTVMs are amplified analog meters and contain active circuitry.
For an analog meter movement, DC voltage is measured with a series resistor connected between the meter movement and the circuit under test. A switch (usually rotary) allows greater resistance to be inserted in series with the meter movement to read higher voltages. The product of the basic full-scale deflection current of the movement, and the sum of the series resistance and the movement’s own resistance, gives the full-scale voltage of the range. As an example, a meter movement that required 1 mA for full-scale deflection, with an internal resistance of 500 Ω, would, on a 10 V range of the multimeter, have 9,500 Ω of series resistance.
For analog current ranges, matched low-resistance shunts are connected in parallel with the meter movement to divert most of the current around the coil. Again for the case of a hypothetical 1 mA, 500 Ω movement on a 1 A range, the shunt resistance would be just over 0.5 Ω.
Moving coil instruments can respond only to the average value of the current through them. To measure alternating current, which changes up and down repeatedly, a rectifier is inserted in the circuit so that each negative half cycle is inverted; the result is a varying and nonzero DC voltage whose maximum value will be half the AC peak to peak voltage, assuming a symmetrical waveform. Since the rectified average value and the root mean square (RMS) value of a waveform are only the same for a square wave, simple rectifier-type circuits can only be calibrated for sinusoidal waveforms. Other wave shapes require a different calibration factor to relate RMS and average value. This type of circuit usually has fairly limited frequency range. Since practical rectifiers have non-zero voltage drop, accuracy and sensitivity is poor at low AC voltage values.
To measure resistance, switches arrange for a small battery within the instrument to pass a current through the device under test and the meter coil. Since the current available depends on the state of charge of the battery which changes over time, a multimeter usually has an adjustment for the ohm scale to zero it. In the usual circuits found in analog multimeters, the meter deflection is inversely proportional to the resistance, so full-scale will be 0 Ω, and higher resistance will correspond to smaller deflections. The ohms scale is compressed, so resolution is better at lower resistance values.
Amplified instruments simplify the design of the series and shunt resistor networks. The internal resistance of the coil is decoupled from the selection of the series and shunt range resistors; the series network thus becomes a voltage divider. Where AC measurements are required, the rectifier can be placed after the amplifier stage, improving precision at low range.
Digital instruments, which necessarily incorporate amplifiers, use the same principles as analog instruments for resistance readings. For resistance measurements, usually a small constant current is passed through the device under test and the digital multimeter reads the resultant voltage drop; this eliminates the scale compression found in analog meters, but requires a source of precise current. An autoranging digital multimeter can automatically adjust the scaling network so the measurement circuits use the full precision of the A/D converter.
In all types of multimeters, the quality of the switching elements is critical to stable and accurate measurements. The best DMMs use gold plated contacts in their switches; less expensive meters use nickel plating or none at all, relying on printed circuit board solder traces for the contacts. Accuracy and stability (e.g., temperature variation, or aging, or voltage/current history) of a meter’s internal resistors (and other components) is a limiting factor in long-term accuracy and precision of the instrument.